Israeli teen emissaries with the ShinShinim program, Noa Herman (second from left) and Nir Chen (right), having lunch with students at Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.
Israeli teen emissaries with the ShinShinim program, Noa Herman (second from left) and Nir Chen (right), having lunch with students at Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.

Teen emissaries bring Israel to Bay Area students, gain appreciation for U.S. Judaism

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At the start of the current school year, Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City added a highly effective learning tool to its Hebrew-language classes: Israelis. In this case, two teens from Israel who are eager to illuminate the breadth and beauty of their homeland.

The young emissaries, Noa Herman and Nir Chen, are both 18 and participating in a gap-year program sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel called ShinShinim (short for shnat sherut, or “year of service”). It places recent high school graduates in a variety of settings throughout the Jewish world — from JCCs to synagogues to Jewish day schools — allowing them to defer their military service for one year.

Adam Eilath
Adam Eilath

“Our teachers do a tremendous job of getting our students excited about Hebrew,” said Adam Eilath, head of the K-8 school, “but it’s still not enough. I am looking to have Noa and Nir be models, a plausible reason why you’d want to speak Hebrew, and to provide opportunities to appreciate Judaism and Israel.”

For 23 years, ShinShinim has placed hundreds of teen shlichim (emissaries) across North America, Latin America, South Africa and Europe. It’s an immersive experience that opens up new worlds, both for the shlichim and for the Jewish communities they serve, including the school renamed for Ronald C. Wornick in 2004.

“We’re there to support and add personal knowledge,” said Noa, a Ramat Gan native who speaks flawless American English. “We add that to every project. On Fridays we do Kabbalat Shabbat with the kids. We add things we feel will help the kids make a more meaningful connection to Israel.”

Nir and Noa have brought a youthful spirit and perspective to Wornick’s Hebrew classes. For one assignment, the two talked about their favorite places in Jerusalem. Then they had the students write notes in Hebrew, which were to be taken to Israel and placed in the crannies of the Kotel.

In another class, Nir assigned students to research various Israeli sports and entertainment celebrities. “This will make the connection greater,” he said. “They will go to Israel one day and hear the names [of the celebrities] when they walk in the street.”

I feel we have learned so much. A new culture, a new country. We made connections with people that will last forever.

The two have taken on responsibilities beyond teaching Hebrew. Nir, a skilled basketball player, was named assistant coach for the Wornick Rams middle-school squad. Noa, who studied theater, dance and music at an arts school in Jaffa, has brought music to students, for example, teaching them the song “Shir LaShalom,” which they performed in November on the anniversary of the 1995 assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In addition, Noa is planning a version of an Israeli program dubbed “Running in Their Memory,” in which each student is assigned a fallen Israeli hero and then runs a race in their honor.

The two even dreamed up a friendly competition involving Hebrew, academics and sports, with the students divided into two teams: Southern Israel and Northern Israel. The south won.

“I see the impact they’re having in the classrooms,” Eilath said. “The teachers talk about how impactful it is to have them. A parent was just telling me how much more their kid is speaking Hebrew.”

Like most exchange students, Nir and Noa have been staying with host families, an experience both have loved. Noa said the young daughters in one of her host families are “like sisters” to her now. Nir, a dedicated hiker, has trekked all over the local hills and visited Yosemite, and he’s also watched his beloved Golden State Warriors play six home games.

Both have been impressed by U.S-style Judaism, which differs markedly from the ways back home. Noa noted that Wornick students begin their school day with tefillah (prayer), something that never happened at her elementary school.

“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” she said. “Every time I go to the synagogue, I call my parents and tell them about it. I can never forget on Simchat Torah we were dancing with the Torah. One teacher said, ‘Do you want to hold it?’ I said, ‘I can hold a Torah and have the kids dance around me?’ It was so fun, and such a big deal for me.”

Eilath noted that the late Ronald C. Wornick himself funded the first ShinShinim cohort at the school a few years ago, but the Covid-19 pandemic prevented any follow-up until this year.

Now, he said, other local institutions — including Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, Brandeis Marin in San Rafael and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette — will welcome ShinShinim emissaries next year.

Meanwhile, Nir and Noa will work at Wornick until June, and then have some summer fun being counselors at Camp Ramah in Monterey before returning to Israel.

Both affirm their California sojourn has been life-changing. “I feel we have learned so much,” Nir said. “A new culture, a new country. We made connections with people that will last forever.”

Added Noa: “Now and forever we will always have a home here. I hope the kids will know they have a home with us.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.