On Jan. 18, a diverse group of educators, rabbis, heads of schools, leaders from Hillel and several youth groups, along with lay leaders from Toronto’s Jewish community met at Kibbutz Shefayim north of Tel Aviv to begin a six-day, whirlwind tour focused on the selection of a new cohort of shinshinim, for a program that brings young Israelis in their gap year before entering the Israel Defence Force (IDF) to Toronto for a year of service.
Toronto has the most extensive and intensive shinshinim program in the Diaspora. In 2016-17, Toronto will welcome 24 of the 115 shinshinim in the whole Diaspora. There will be 72 host families, and literally tens of thousands of children, adolescents, young adults, adults and seniors will experience these young people – sometimes intensely, sometimes less so – throughout the year.
The shinshinim are seen as rock stars in our day and supplementary schools, and they integrate into their host families in ways that ensure enduring positive change and relationships with Israel. You will see them at major milestone events like the Walk with Israel and Federation’s campaign launch. These are not just any young Israelis. These are the kids who come to live in our homes and invest in our children. They go to our camps, and spend their days in our schools and synagogues. They are incredible young people, who we learn to appreciate and respect and love during their time in Canada.
And when they return home, we maintain, and even strengthen, our relationships. When they get married – and we had our first shinshin wedding only a few months back – we are invited. They return here to celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs, or just to visit. And through it all, as they wind their way through their Israeli lives, they remain our young friends.
The Israel Engagement Team of UJA, along with its partner the Jewish Agency of Israel, take the selection process seriously. It’s no accident that, to a person, the shinshinim are engaging, energetic, bright, knowledgeable, and highly capable of communicating their passion for Israel and Judaism.
During our time in Israel, we interviewed and we made choices. We met 48 young Israelis, each of whom was exceptional, every one selected from a deep pool of 2,000 candidates gathered by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The candidates told us why they wanted to take a year of their life to invest in Toronto with us. They shared their excitement about making a difference in our community. They told us why they insisted on making a difference.
It was not easy to choose. The candidates left after 36 hours together, went back to their homes, and awaited the calls that night which would let them know whether they were going to be spending a year in Toronto.
Later that week, we reunited with over 70 of our shinshinim alumni at a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Many of them traveled for hours from their homes and army bases to join us. And at the end of the week, we gathered with the 24 chosen young Israelis for a Shabbaton in Jerusalem to begin the next chapter in their lives. We got to know them better, we talked about life in Toronto and about making our community stronger by building closer connections with Israel, and becoming personally stronger and more Jewishly connected in the process.
And then, as the chosen ones led us in a Havdalah service to close Shabbat, their parents joined us and we interacted together as one big Jewish family – 60 older Canadians, 24 newly chosen shinshinim, their parents and many of their alumni predecessors all sharing in the excitement of the people-to-people connection between Toronto and Israel that can only come from a program like this.
We kvelled, we marveled, we strived, we interacted and created, we generated new ideas to strengthen Jewish life around Israel in Toronto. We reunited with former shinshinim and learned of their leadership work in Israel, heard of their experiences in the IDF and university, felt intense pride that we had a hand in helping these young Jews to become the best that they can be. And we returned with the knowledge that we would be introducing another 24 outstanding young Israelis into the Toronto community in 2016-17, our 10th year of this incredible program.
For more information about UJA’s shinshinim program, please visit here.
Michael Diamond is a business consultant, entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. He is involved extensively in Jewish and non-Jewish community life and sits on or chairs several boards and committees of a number of non-profit organizations.