A select group of Israeli teenagers are working within Anglo-Jewry’s major communal organisations to introduce new projects to bring British Jews and Israelis closer together.
The eight teenagers, brought to the UK by the Jewish Agency for Israel, are spending their gap year between school and military service as volunteers for groups such as JW3, UJIA and the London Jewish Cultural Centre.
Known by the Hebrew acronym the shin shinim, they were chosen from thousands of applicants, and given special permission from the Israel Defence Forces to delay their army service.
Since their arrival, they have organised a memorial ceremony for Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin at JW3 and are currently finalising plans for a Purim party.
“We try to bring the Israeli flavour into everything we do,” said 18-year-old Rome Eliahou, from Ramat Gan. “We take a festival Purim and look at it from both the religious and Israeli point of view. When we are organising an event, we want everyone to feel like they want to part of it.”
The Israelis say they have settled well since their arrival, but are still struck by some aspects of British Jewish life.
“There seems to be a Jewish organisation or charity for everything,” said Rome. “JW3, JNF, JLGB, FZY and LJCC — there are so many organisations - it’s amazing, they care about everything.”
The teenagers are also impressed by the level of religious diversity inthe community when compared with Israel.
“You don’t have to be religiously strong to feel the Judaism here and be a Jew,” said Noa Tzimer from Kfar Mordechair, near Ashdod.
Jerusalemite Shera Mantver, 19, agreed. “Here, we are learning what it actually means to be Jewish. I thought I was dealing with that side of my identity in Israel, but it wasn’t at the level it should be. There is so much creativity here surrounding what it means to be Jewish.”
They also said they thought they could make a tangible difference towards improving the image of Israel in the UK.
“The news here and the BBC are not showing things exactly the way they are,” says Yonatan Leybovich from the Sharon area, in central Israel.
“By coming to organisations and youth movements, and showing them the real Israel — I’m not saying the land of milk and honey — but the real facts, we can be very influential.”
British cultural differences and office work habits have also been a learning curve for the Israelis.
“We didn’t realise before we came to England that emails are like texts,” said Yonatan. “People expect you to reply within 24 hours, more quickly than you would in Israel.
“And we’re more used to improvising and being spontaneous. Here, there is a lot of planning. Tradition is very strong so sometimes youth movements don’t think out of the box and are scared of changes.
Communal leaders said that in their short time in the UK, the shin shinim had already made a big impact.
“There is a phenomenal difference on the ground with young people because of the work they have done,” said JLGB Chief Executive Neil Martin. “They are on the ground as emissaries, doing it for real.”
Rael Goodman, the Jewish Agency’s executive director in the UK, said the presence of the shin shinim was part of the organisation’s new strategy to make “Israel the centre of Jewish life in the world”.
He said: “We want Israel to become the prominent cornerstone of Jewish identity. The role of the group is to be a living bridge between the UK community and the Israeli community.”
The students are in the UK for a year. Is there anything they are missing about life back home?
“Road signs in Hebrew,” says Shera. “And real hummus.”