Israeli teen emissaries to be newest link in Tucson-Israel chain

Under the auspices of the Weintraub Israel Center, Leah Avuno and Bar Alkaher, Israeli teen emissaries who will arrive in Tucson in August, hold a Skype conference with local Jewish educators. The teens are known as “Shinshinim,” from the Hebrew letter “shin’’ that starts each word in the program’s Hebrew title, “Shnat Sherut Shlishit” (third year of service). (Courtesy Weintraub Israel Center)

A year of service will soon begin for two Israeli teens and their work will bring them here to Tucson.

Leah Avuno
Leah Avuno

Leah Genei Avuno, 17, of Kiryat Malachi and Bar Alkaher, 17, of Shimshit will arrive here at the beginning of August and they cannot wait to dig in. They are both excited and nervous about their upcoming year, which they’ll spend working with kids in local Jewish school programs.

“It’s not really sinking in yet,” Alkaher says. “I’m starting to think about different things I’m going to do; all these ideas keep jumping in my head and I’m thinking maybe it will be a good idea doing it there. It’s really challenging but it’s also really fun thinking about it.”

“I’m very excited,” Avuno says with enthusiasm. “I have all kinds of worries and I have all kinds of thoughts but I’m mainly very excited to meet the community because from what I experienced from some of the people of Tucson who came to Kiryat Malachi, I had the best time; they were so funny and the communication was so good that I’m very relaxed and ready for my year in Tucson.”

Bar Alkaher
Bar Alkaher

The pair is part of the Shinshinim Young Ambassadors Program, which sends recent high school graduates from Israel all over the world to act as ambassadors. They stay for a year with local host families, volunteering in area programs and schools and generally bringing “their Israel” to the communities they serve. At the end of their service year here, both Avuno and Alkaher will return to fulfill their military obligations. They were selected, along with 120 others who will be placed all over the United States and the world, from more than 3,000 candidates, says Avuno.

The Weintraub Israel Center and the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona make it possible for the pair to come, along with a number of local organizations including Congregation Anshei Israel, Congregation Bet Shalom, Congregation Chaverim, Temple Emanu-El, the Tucson Jewish Community Center, the Tucson Hebrew Academy and Tucson Hebrew High.

“I am thrilled with this new program,” says Oshrat Barel, director of the Weintraub Israel Center.

“The Weintraub Israel Centers’ mission is to be the living bridge to Israel and we were looking for a meaningful yet fun way to connect our community with Israel. The Shinshinim program is a perfect way to connect both kids and adults with Israel and I am sure Leah and Bar will do an extraordinary job as the first Tucson shinshinim.

“Not less important is the collaboration with the community at whole. It’s a pleasure to work with all our Jewish community and it’s thanks to their enthusiasm, belief in the idea and their financial support that we were able to put this program together.”

The teens have already been thinking about ways to make those connections.

Alkaher loves sports, especially basketball and orienteering, so he plans to bring that to his work.

“I’m mostly working with teenagers and with kids and I want to connect with them through sports, through different types of sports,” Alkaher says. “It’s a wonderful way to connect with children everywhere with physical activities, talking about how is it different in Israel and the United States and in Arizona. I would also like to bring my guitar with me to Tucson and maybe have a musical connection.”

Alkaher’s favorite type of music?

“I really like the old music, like hard rock,” he said. “Led Zeppelin is one of my favorite bands.”

Avuno says her plans will unfold over the coming months, as she and Alkaher hold Skype meetings with local educators.

“I just love the process of the project,” she says. “I love how, first of all, everyone is just bringing their own … crazy ideas and good ideas and we put it into words and into actions. Then to see the final project, it just makes me so proud and so happy.”

She also loves something very American.

“The thing that I really, really like is to watch Ellen DeGeneres,” Avuno says. “I love watching her show. I learn a lot from her. My English is from her.”

Avuno does have some trepidation about coming, however.

“They are the normal stuff, like missing home too much or the things that I will be missing about Israel or my family,” Avuno says. “There are some things that are very different [about Tucson … and] just some worries that maybe people don’t know anything about Israelis and I need to explain the basic of the basic. It is very challenging to go to a whole new community for 12 months when you’re only 18.”

Alkaher has his concerns, too. He has a girlfriend at home.

“It’s a problem,” he says. “We haven’t talked about it so much because it’s actually pretty scary and not so fun to talk about. I’m not really sure what’s going to happen.”

Still, Alkaher has been preparing for this since he was in the ninth grade. He really wants us to know Israel is not a warmongering nation or people.

“I really want to make people understand that Israel is not the country that’s always at war and it’s not missiles and different kinds of people wanting to kill us and wanting to obliterate Israel,” he says. “And I want them to understand that it’s a modern country, just like the United States and an amazing place to live and all the things they say on the media, most of them are incorrect. I want them to know how amazing it is to live here and be a Jew in Israel.”