Putting A Human Face On News

Teen Volunteers Show Baltimore 'Life In Israel Is Normal'

August 21, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

The two teens had led the second-graders in the singing game quackadillo omar, organized a round of the dodgeball variant chamamot, and demonstrated what one of them called the Israeli way of jumping rope. Now the children at the Jewish day camp sat on the grass around Tal Bouhnik and Liron Menashe and asked questions.

"Are there any Christian people in Israel?" Stefan wanted to know.

"There are, but not many," Bouhnik said.

"Like, 10?" Stefan asked.

Exchanges such as this one last week at Camp Milldale in Reisterstown are the reason Bouhnik and Menashe were brought to Baltimore. Under the auspices of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Greater Baltimore, the two 19-year-olds have spent the last year as the local community's first shinshinim, volunteers visiting schools, synagogues, community centers and, for the last two months, the summer camp, to describe for local Jews their lives as ordinary Israelis.

"What you hear in the media is Israel at war, suicide bombings, Kassam rockets falling," Bouhnik said. "People live in Israel. We are here to show that life in Israel is normal."

The program is one of several links between the local Jewish community and the Israeli city of Ashkelon, the southern seaport adopted by The Associated earlier this decade as Baltimore's twin. Thousands of Baltimoreans have traveled to Ashkelon in the last five years for cultural exchanges, service projects, business or tourism; hundreds of Ashkelonians have visited Baltimore. The local community has contributed nearly $8 million to the Israeli city, including rapid assistance during the conflict with Gaza in the form of emergency vehicles, workshops for adults under stress and toys for children in shelters.

Bouhnik and Menashe, high school graduates who deferred the start of their mandatory military service for a year to come to Baltimore, say it was difficult to be abroad during the conflict - at least at first.

"I was thinking, what can I do here?" Menashe said. "It would be better for me to be in Israel with my people. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized my people are here, too. I had a real chance to share with them my perspective and my feelings."

The pair shared their views on the conflict in the local media. But as Bouhnik says, their year's work here went beyond talking about war and politics.

"We gave a face to Israel," Menashe said. "Now, when people think about Israel, they can think not only of the Israeli map or the Israeli flag, but of their friends Tal and Liron."

At Camp Milldale, the pair have taught tarbut, or culture, holding court in a cabin featuring a large map of the Jewish state, banners advertising candy bars in Hebrew and stars of David made from Popsicle sticks.

On a recent afternoon, 7-year-old Julian bounded into the cabin and begged Bouhnik to perform a tune called Hebrew rap. When Julian's fellow campers caught up to him, Bouhnik and Menashe led the group in a series of games, and then directed them in the creation of an Israeli flag from colored paper.

"They are able to adapt to whoever their audience is," said Ellen Kahan Zager, who chairs the Associated subcommittee that brought the Israelis to Baltimore. "So for really young kids, they taught them songs and dancing. They led high school juniors and seniors in discussions about what it means to be an Israeli teenager - really teaching what it means to grow up in Israel."

The exchange has gone two ways. Bouhnik and Menashe both say their English has improved in the last year; Menashe wears a T-shirt declaring her "Wacko for [Ravens quarterback Joe] Flacco." The pair plan to travel during their last two weeks in the country.

Israel has sent some 40 shinshinim - the word comes from the Hebrew initials for Shnat Sherut, or year of service - to Jewish communities in North America this year. But this was the first time that Baltimore has hosted the cultural ambassadors.

Sigal Ariely, who directs the Ashkelon-Baltimore relationship for Associated from Israel, says the program has two goals: "to bring the message of Israel and Jewish identity from Israel to the community," and "to enhance the connections" between the cities.

She is now preparing the next two Ashkelonian shinshinim; Hadar Madnick and Natan Mish are due to replace Bouhnik and Menashe later this month.

"I know that the schools are lining up to get their hands on them, to bring them in to do more," Zager said. "The great thing now is that they have some experience, so they know the possibilities.

"Hopefully the two new ones will be just as inventive and energetic as Tal and Liron."

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