September 16, 2011
Scouting for Israelis
Shevet Chen, the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Israeli Scout movement, is proving that scouting is good for Israel, particularly here in the United States.
At a time when assimilation and intermarriage are high on the list of concerns for Israelis raising children in Los Angeles, this youth organization, which combines outdoor activities with Israeli culture, is cranking out Hebrew-speaking, “Hatikvah”-singing, Israel-loving Zionists, who, by the way, can build just about anything from a pile of sticks.
The Israeli Scouts, or Tzofim, have been operating a chapter in the San Fernando Valley for 30 years. Based in Israel, with chapters all over the world, Tzofim is a nonsectarian, nonpolitical youth movement akin to the Boy Scouts, with an Israeli flair. Although Los Angeles has the largest Israeli population outside of Israel, the L.A. movement had lost a little momentum in recent years.
In stepped Eli Fitlovitz, who at first had to drag his own three reluctant teens to the weekly Sunday activities. A commercial real estate broker by trade and an Angeleno for nearly 30 years, Fitlovitz finds his real fulfillment in life by volunteering in the Israeli community. He saw incredible potential in Shevet Chen to create an impact on the precarious generation of American-born children of Israelis, who were in real danger of losing their connection to Israel and, more significantly, their identity as Jews.
These kids were in a no-man’s land: They weren’t growing up in Israel surrounded by Hebrew, national holidays and mandatory IDF service, and they weren’t American Jews born into a system of synagogue membership, Jewish summer camps and Sunday Hebrew school.
Fitlovitz felt compelled to take responsibility for this generation, and he became chairman of Shevet Chen nearly four years ago. Along with a dedicated team of parent volunteers and the solid financial support of the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), among other donors, Fitlovitz restructured the local chapter with the finesse of an experienced and successful businessman.
He appointed a dedicated PR person to raise awareness; launched a social media campaign and Web site to connect directly to the kids; organized the first counselor trips to Israel; and got the parents involved in the programming as a way to bring them into the community.
“The foundation was there,” Fitlovitz said. “What was missing was that not enough people knew about it. I took something good and transformed it into something amazing.”
The proof is in the pudding: kids wearing shirts that say, “This is what a Zionist looks like”; a surge in enrollment and the subsequent founding of a second chapter in the city; more than 200 youth taking part in Hebrew-only activities weekly; more than half a dozen kids a year making aliyah and volunteering in the Israeli army; young adults who go off to college with a passion for Israel and the confidence and knowledge to defend a country they consider home, regardless of where they were born or raised; and an impassioned, active community.
Israelis Donna Livni and Hagit Eden have children in Shevet Chen and are members of the board. They grew up in the United States, managed to retain their Israeli identity and are raising their children in strongly Israeli-Jewish homes. But it wasn’t enough, they said at a recent Shevet Chen event, where they were volunteering their time along with other parents and board members. They became involved in Tzofim around the time Fitlovitz came on board and have been thrilled with the transformation of the chapter and the effect it has had on their children and their own sense of community.
Yael Mayer, an ebullient 18-year-old, was a top counselor at Shevet Chen. For her, being involved in Tzofim was about getting connected to Jewish culture, belonging to a community and making friends. Her participation helped her make the decision to serve in the IDF. “It was a feeling,” she said. “I have such a strong connection to my home country.”
Kids 8 to 18 years old have weekly meetings — Shevet Chen is housed at the West Hills JCC, thanks to the support of The Jewish Federation — and participate in mostly secular Israeli cultural activities: singing Hebrew songs, celebrating the holidays Israeli-style, building three-dimensional structures out of sticks, planting trees, going on camping trips, hiking and playing educational trivia games.
Fitlovitz pointed out a critical subtext in the programming: acknowledging and embracing the kids’ dual identities. One game, for instance, had them listing the things they love about Israel as well as the things they love about America.
“I want to give them the confidence to admit that there is good there and here,” Fitlovitz said.
It’s a lesson that perhaps the entire Israeli community living in Los Angeles needs to learn: Living a fulfilling life outside of Israel and being passionately connected to your roots can go hand in hand quite beautifully.