Hosting a Federation Rishon Is a Wonderful Experience!

By Craig Levine & Phoebe Farber

On January 10, Omer Erez walked through our front door and our family’s lives got better.

Omer is a rishon, one of the seven extraordinary young Israelis brought to our community by our Jewish Federation for their year between high school and IDF service. They work in day schools, religious schools, JCCs, and elsewhere to expose young people and others to contemporary Israeli life.

The tone with Omer was set from moment one. Whatever needs doing, he says “How can I help?” Ask how he’s doing, and he’ll always say, “Great!” And he means it.

It’s not just an infusion of upbeat, positive energy Omer has brought into our home and family. It’s also fascinating conversation, teaching each other some language skills (though his English is miles beyond our paltry Hebrew), learning about each other’s cultures and histories, talking politics, and just hanging out making fun of each together. Mainly, he’s just great company and great fun.

Omer has been a fabulous friend and role model to our son, Caleb, who is 15. And our daughter, Isabel, 19, has loved spending time with him when home from college.

Recently, we were invited to the first seder at Omer’s aunt and uncle’s place in Connecticut. Something like 30 Israelis (including his younger brother – the older one, an IDF navy Seal, could not get away – his parents, and his grandmother), Americans, and Israeli-Americans from across the States gathered around the table. It was a privilege to be invited, and our halting Haggadah Hebrew elicited praise as flattering as it was unwarranted. We left with multiple invitations and plans to meet again, in both New York and Tel Aviv.

Hosting a rishon is a great opportunity to get closer to Israel and develop life-long relationships while making an important contribution to our local Jewish community. And it could not be easier. There are just two requirements: (1) open your home and family to someone for four or five months (September to January or January to June, after which they go to summer camps), and (2) feed them (Omer, a healthy 18-year-old boy, puts this one to the test). Federation provides each rishon with a car, so there are no transportation responsibilities. And Federation has a strong infrastructure of support if ever it should be needed.

We’ve been lucky enough to have had the entire gaggle of this year’s rishonim gather in our home several times. (We’re charming, to be sure, but it may have had something to do with the movie screen and hot tub.) They’re a remarkable group: poised, thoughtful, engaging, optimistic, funny, and smart as a whip. It was particularly fun screening the film version of The Band’s Visit with them and having several of them improve upon the English subtitles, translating from both the Hebrew and the Arabic. That they’re an all-star group is no surprise, as they pass through an exceedingly rigorous application process. We’d have been honored to host any one of them.

Next year there will be nine rishonim, so 18 host families are needed. People should be beating down Federation’s doors seeking the honor, but instead recruitment is an annual challenge. If we could, we’d host over and over; but to spread the opportunity and experience one may only do so once every five years.

This is your golden opportunity. While not an absolute rule, the experience is probably best suited to families with children in the house. To express interest or learn more, reach out to Anya Bitansky, Federation’s Global Connections Associate, at abitansky@jfedgmw.org or (973) 929-3047.

Give it a try. Trust us, you’ll be so glad you did.

Phoebe Farber and Craig Levine live in Montclair with their children Isabel and Caleb. They are active members of Bnai Keshet, of which Craig is a past president. Phoebe is a therapist and playwright. Craig is an attorney and grateful alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program.