August 27, 2008
Young women—Bat Ami Girls—bring Israel to Los Angeles schools
Now in its eighth year in Los Angeles, the Bat Ami project sends a group of 18- to 20-year-old Orthodox women from Israel to communities around the world to teach kids about Israel, celebrate the Jewish holidays and give them that extra something that only a true Sabra can give.
Last academic year, 12 women served four schools in Los Angeles and also ran programming for Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth group. Another 12 women arrived here this week.
"I feel a closer relationship to Israel today than ever before thanks to these girls," said Odelia Yashari, a student at Shalhevet High School, who became good friends with the Bat Ami girls who were at her school last year. "Their different activities made us understand better what Israel had been through, in order to get where the country is today. They made every lesson and every holiday an experience."
That is the kind of connection the Bat Ami women were hoping for when they volunteered to go overseas as emissaries of Israel.
"We felt we came here with a mission to strengthen the kids' Jewish identity, their pride of Israel, the knowledge that they have a home in Israel -- and we believe we did that. We are pretty proud of what we had accomplished here," said Hodaya Gweta, who worked in Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills.
Along with Hillel, the women worked at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, Shalhevet in Los Angeles and YULA Girls High School in Los Angeles.
Gweta and her compatriots, who lived in apartments in the Pico-Robertson area and in Valley Village, had to go through a rigorous screening process to win this assignment, which is granted to about one in four applicants.
In Israel, women can get exemptions from army service on religious grounds. Rather than starting university or starting a family, many religious girls opt for Sherut Leumi, two years of national service, where they volunteer with educational or social service organizations. Bat Ami, an independent organization, runs a program where the girls can fulfill their Sherut Leumi as emissaries in Jewish communities around the world.
The girls don't get paid for their services, but the schools where they work pay for their accommodation, utilities, meals, transportation (some of them even get a car) and provide them with pocket money for extra expenses. Its' a win-win situation: the girls get to experience life in a Jewish community outside of Israel and the schools gain new Israeli teachers who add so much to their school curriculum.
While the girls created special programming around Jewish holidays and made Israel come alive for the students, it was the personal relationships they formed with the kids that made a deep impression. They quickly learned all the kids' names and interests, spoke to them in Hebrew and greeted them with hugs and smiles whether at school, in the neighborhood, or at the programs they ran for Bnei Akiva. They often hosted the kids for Shabbatons, weekend retreats.
On the last day of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy last June, Gweta, Wanana Kindeh, Racheli Baum and Ortal Nachum had to soothe third-graders who were in tears saying goodbye to their Israeli friends.
"Every lesson with them was so much fun," said Bracha Stettin, a student at Shalhevet. "We learned a lot from them. They brought a positive spirit to the school. It was very interesting learning new things from Israeli girls. Although we have many Israeli kids in our school, it's different when you actually have an Israeli teacher who lives in Israel and is telling you about how it is like there. They taught us so much about Israel and the way you celebrate the holidays, and overall, about the Israeli culture."
Before they packed up last June, the girls sat down to reflect on their year while they worked on end-of-the-year gifts for their students -- discs full of photos and video clips from their activities with the kids. They also gave the students magnets with their photos, contact information and an open invitation to visit anytime they come to Israel.
The 12 Israeli girls didn't know each other when they were assigned to Los Angeles.
They found that life away from home made them independent. For the first time in their lives, they had to be responsible for their own laundry, expenses, cooking and cleaning. "Last year we did the same during our first year of community service [in Israel], but still, we got home every weekend and here we were on our own. We got very close to each other thanks to that. We were like a family. We created our own home away from home and that helped us a lot," said Ysca Gilat, who worked at Shalhevet.
The girls spent Shabbat and holidays with families in the community.
"Holidays here are different in many ways from Jewish holidays in Israel," Racheli Baum said. "In Israel we celebrate only one Passover Seder and here we celebrated two nights of each holiday."
Another thing that the girls were not prepared for was the number of Israelis who live in Los Angeles. "We heard Hebrew everywhere -- it was amazing. Here we are, coming to tell the kids how wonderful it is to live in Israel and there are so many Israelis who live here. So, if it is so wonderful, why so many immigrate here?" said Limor Toledano, who worked at YULA.
"We were also shocked to find out the size of the Jewish community here," Eliana Silverman added. "I remember on Rosh Hashanah, we went out for Tashlich to this small river and suddenly we saw hundreds of people coming along with us. The street was packed with Jewish people with kippahs and black hats."
They also took time to travel through the states, visiting Hawaii, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, as well as Mexico.
Now back in Israel, the girls are enrolled in university and college, and will have their first reunion at Silverman's upcoming wedding.
Meanwhile, the four Jewish schools that operate the program here in Los Angeles are getting ready to welcome their new Bat Ami girls.
"The girls had a wonderful impact on our students," said Rabbi Yosef Furman, principal of YULA girls school last year. "They were good role models. They were able to connect and inspire our students. They tightened the love our students have for Israel and we were very lucky to have them."