The main attraction of a safari is to watch the wild animals in their natural habitat. The local guides always set a highly ambitious goal on the first day: “If we are lucky enough,” they would dramatically state, “understanding the lay of the land and keeping an optimistic spirit, we will be able to see the Big 5.” (The “Big 5” are the five royal animals of Africa: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and cape buffalo.) And in a miraculous way, by the end of each safari trip, this ambitious goal is usually met.
Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, through its Global Connections arm, has set similar ambitious goals. We developed our own “Big 5” Initiative at the onset of and in response to COVID-19. Like the safari guides say, “with some luck, understanding the lay of the land, and lots of optimistic spirit” we will be successful.
Our “Big 5” are:
1. Partnerships Network Model
3. Rishonim Chai
5. Leaders for Cohesive Society
Today I will focus on Rishonim Chai:
The number 18 is translated to Chai חי, “alive” in gematria, using Hebrew letters, and therefore became a symbol of luck in the Jewish tradition. Chai is also very meaningful in modern Israeli tradition as it is the age at which our young people begin their army service and become full adults.
Coincidentally, it was 18 years ago when Michal Zur, now the Global Connections director in Israel but then the shlicha in Greater MetroWest, challenged our community to become part of a unique program of the Jewish Agency for Israel – a crazy idea to bring 18-year-old Israelis for a year of service in our community. Being the proactive, creative, and innovative Federation we are, we obviously took the challenge: As a result, the Rishonim program (named such because the teens originally came from our partner community of Rishon LeZion) has become, over the years, one of the most successful initiatives in Global Connections.
Each year, an amazing group of Israeli teens defer their army service for one year and come to New Jersey to serve our Jewish community, living with host families and connecting young people to Israel and Jewish identity in a fresh, authentic, and exciting way. We’ve grown from two rishonim in year one to nine last year.
Sadly, because of COVID, our Rishonim 17 cohort had to head home early and we couldn’t bring the 18th cohort to New Jersey. But we couldn’t let such wonderful program completely stop, especially not in its Chai year. We had to find a way to keep it going.
Again, in the words of the safari guide: “With some luck, understanding the lay of the land, and lots of optimistic spirit,” we created Rishonim Chai. Our 18th cohort consists of an enthusiastic group of rishonim alumni from previous years who are providing fun educational activities, remotely, from their homes, army bases, or university dorms.
Once again Federation is coping with a huge challenge – keeping our young people engaged with Israel during a time of global pandemic, travel bans, and social distance.
Rishonim Chai is answering the need, keeping the legacy alive, and ensuring that we don’t lose a year of important connections to Israel. Next year, G-d willing, we will be able back "on life” and not online. Am Israel Chai. Take pride.