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Israeli students find God … in Canada

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From left, Hilly Noy, a Jewish Agency emissary in Toronto, Daniel Kutsevalov and Tal Kholevitsky volunteer for Out of the Cold at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.

It’s a familiar enough story. A program is designed to link up Israeli and Canadian Jews, so they can share their perspectives and learn from each other. A few high school students travel to the other country and realize they’ve been taking their Jewish identity for granted, prompting them to reconnect with their Jewish heritage. Except this isn’t a story about Canadian Jews discovering themselves in the Holy Land.

For Daniel Kutsevalov and Tal Kholevitsky, two high school students from Eilat, it was spending time with Toronto’s Jewish community that made them appreciate their Judaism.

Both of them first visited Toronto in March 2018, as Diller Teen Fellows. They were able to return to Canada thanks to Cafe Hafooch, a new UJA Federation of Greater Toronto program that pairs Israeli students with adult Torontonians, to share their perspectives about issues affecting their Jewish identities, such as immigration and refugees, via an online, video-chat based, virtual café.

Cafe Hafooch literally means upside down coffee, but it’s the Israeli word for cappuccino, because the ratio of coffee to water is the opposite of a regular coffee. So too is the program designed on opposites – adults matched with high school students, Canadians with Israelis.

Rivka Campell, a member of the Toronto Jewish community who participated in Cafe Hafooch and met Kutsevalov and Kholevitsky when they visited from Feb. 3-10, believes in the potential of the program and hopes to see it extended in the future.

“It is important for us to have this connection to Israel and for the students to be connected to Canada,” she said. “For me, this was a highlight of my week. I was happy to connect with my students, Valeria and Julianna. They are wonderful, intelligent and personable young women. It was remarked to me that I am happy after every conversation I have with them.”

Tal Kholevitsky, left, and Daniel Kutsevalov stand on the streets of Toronto during their recent visit.

Over the two trips, the students learned how fiercely Jews in Toronto – and all over the world, for that matter – care about Israel.

“People (in Eilat) have no sense of what’s going on in the Diaspora, how the Diaspora Jews think every day about Israel, how they protect Israel, even talk about Israel, how they come to Israel to serve in the army as lonely soldiers, how they raise money and funds to help maintain their partnership with Israel,” Kutsevalov said. “I would say it’s actually expanded everything for me, just changed my view 180 degrees.”

Both Kutsevalov and Kholevitsky said they plan to share what they learned with their friends and family when they return home.

Perhaps an even more profound discovery that the two gleaned from their trip was how much Judaism meant to them. Living in Israel, Judaism is something they can take for granted, since it’s part of their day-to-day lives, not something they have to actively pursue.

“I neglected (my Jewish identity) for a long time and then I saw how important it is,” said Kholevitsky.

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The differences between Canadian and Israeli societies was obvious to both of them.

“Being a Jew in the Diaspora, you have to maintain your Judaism … it’s not taken for granted here, unlike in Israel. You have Yom Kippur, no cars outside. On yom Shabbat, the stores are closed. It’s easier to maybe lose your Jewish identity, maybe being more Israeli than Jew,” said Kutsevalov.

Kutsevalov was so inspired by his trip to Toronto that he decided to officially convert to Judaism under the rules of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which had previously not recognized him as Jewish. He started the conversion process in May, when he went back to Eilat following his first trip to Toronto, and will finish his conversion in the army.

The focus of the students’ trip through Cafe Hafooch was exploring the various social justice initiatives that the local Jewish community is involved in. That included volunteering with Ve’ahavta, Out of the Cold and Meals on Wheels, as well as touring the Centre for Social Innovation and meeting with the leadership of Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth movement.

“Something that stood out for me is just the Jewish entrepreneurship. It was not only straight from Jews to Jews, it was from Jews to the whole community … it was people in need,” said Kutsevalov.

“From people to people. Without religion, without anything,” added Kholevitsky.

To learn more about Café Hafooch please email [email protected]