16 Mar Kol Ami Participants Virtually Serve the Westchester Community
In 2020, when it became clear that the Westchester Jewish community would be unable to host Jewish Agency ShinShinim (service year Israel emissaries) in-person in New York thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nadav, our Shaliach (Israeli emissary) serving there, had to figure out how to adapt.
“We had to adjust to the virtual world — so our team started planning online programming, creating a platform for Westchester with educators from Israel,” recounted Nadav. “But we realized we needed young Israeli educators, teens really, in order to be relatable to the kids in the community and to keep the program feeling more informal. That led us to reach out to the Kol Ami Mechinah to see if they’d like to help out and if participants would sign on to be virtual ShinShinim.”
The Jewish Agency’s Kol Ami Jewish Peoplehood Leadership Academy is the only program in Israel modeled after the Israeli Mechinah (pre-army academy) experience that welcomes both post-high school Israelis and Jewish teens from around the world for a six-month-long gap year where they live alongside and learn from one another while taking classes, volunteering and exploring Israel.
Both Maya, from Canada, and Dina, from Norway, participated in Kol Ami during 2020-21 and signed on to be Virtual ShinShinim for Westchester, interacting online with Jewish youth who would typically get to meet with and learn from ShinShinim serving at their JCCs, schools and synagogues.
“Because of COVID lockdowns in Israel, it was hard for us to volunteer locally in person,” said Maya. “So when I was asked to volunteer as a virtual ShinShin and help with Westchester’s Zoom learning program, I was really excited to talk to kids about Judaism and Zionism but also nervous about discussing more complex Israel-related topics, especially as a non-Israeli. But it ended up being such a good experience.”
With everything taking place on Zoom, Dina was anxious about making a real and personal connection with the Westchester kids. After starting to serve as a virtual ShinShin, her worries went away.
“The kids really showed interest in where we lived in Jerusalem and in all these small details we don’t even think about, like the weather and what Israeli food we ate for breakfast,” shared Dina. “We ended up having a lot of interesting conversations that I’ll always carry with me and most importantly, I felt the Kol Ami participants created this lasting and unique link between them and Israel.”
“And it helped that Nadav constantly reminded us that really were having an impact on the children’s lives and making them think and ask questions. He really kept my motivation going,” added Dina.
The virtual ShinShinim program has been so successful that the plan is to continue it past COVID, even when ShinShinim are able to serve in-person in the community again.
“I am so proud of our groundbreaking virtual connection to Israel! The program brought Israel to 15 communities and 800 kids over the course of 100 meetings,” said Nadav. “It was amazing to see Israel engagement in this new era of remote learning. What an exciting and enriching experience for all.”