New Israeli ‘shinshinim’ bring youthful energy to Tucson

Chen Dinatzi (left) and Tamir Shecory (Courtesy Tamir Shecory)

The Tucson Jewish community’s new shinshinim arrived July 31, and the two teen emissaries from Israel couldn’t be more excited.

Chen Dinatzi and Tamir Shecory, both 18, were among 115 Israeli high school graduates, out of more than 2,000 applicants, selected for the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Shinshinim Young Ambassadors program. The teens are sent to countries worldwide for one year, to act as “living bridges” between international Jews and Israel.

Oshrat Barel, vice president of community engagement for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and director of the Weintraub Israel Center, organized the Tucson initiative, now in its second year. Leah Avuno and Bar Alkaher, Tucson’s first shinshinim, returned to Israel on Aug. 6.

The program is a partnership between the Tucson Jewish Community Center, Tucson Hebrew Academy, Congregation Anshei Israel, Temple Emanu-El, Congregations Chaverim, Bet Shalom and Or Chadash, and the Weintraub Israel Center.

The teen emissaries stay with host families, and work in Jewish schools, synagogues and other partner organizations. Dinatzi will be hosted by Jeff and Sarah Artzi, and later by Stephanie and Lance Evic, while Shecory will be welcomed into the home of Tedd and Melissa Goldfinger.

Chen Dinatzi

“I’m beyond excited,” says Dinatzi. She and Shecory spoke via Skype with various community leaders and their host families before leaving Israel. “The people seem so warm. The fact that families who don’t even know us are willing to open their homes to us with such generosity and warmth is amazing.”

Dinatzi comes from Shoham, a small town near Tel Aviv. Her parents are first-generation Israelis whose families came from Italy and Morocco. She loves dancing, music and cooking, all of which she hopes to integrate into her work in Tucson. A longtime girl scout, she has worked as a counselor for three years. After teaching fourth-grade boys for a year, she says, “I started a group for special needs children. It was the most empowering experience I’ve ever had.” Dinatzi hopes to have the opportunity to interact with special needs children in the Tucson Jewish community.

She’ll teach Hebrew in Tucson Jewish schools, and says she plans to make lessons practical and fun. “I’ll teach them how to order ice cream in Tel Aviv.”

Telling the students about their daily lives in Israel is a major component of the Shinshinim program. “The purpose of our work is to is to educate through personal connections,” says Dinatzi.  I want to inspire children to be the best they can be. We want to enrich them with activities, be a model for them and bring them our perception of Israel … the people, the history, and the life of an Israeli person.” And, she says, “I’d like to emphasize that Israel is not a war zone … overall, it’s a very nice place to live in.  I feel very safe.”

Tamir Shecory

Shecory’s home is Kfar HaRif, a moshav, or village, in south-central Israel, with around 800 residents. “I know almost everyone,” he says. He was born to Moroccan parents in Portland, Ore., when his father, an engineer for Intel, was transferred from their home in Israel. “I was there for only eight months,” Shecory says, “but we relocated again for a year when I was in second grade. I remember Portland well.” He recently contacted two old school friends and hopes to visit Portland for a few days while he’s in Tucson.

Like Dinatzi, he looks forward to teaching Hebrew, using some Israeli children’s books he packed in his luggage. He also wants to share his love of art, music and volleyball. He hopes to start a volleyball team in Tucson and to create a community art project.

“Art is a big part of my life,” he says. “Drawing is a way to express myself, and make people think. My dream is to have a big wall that the community will make with me.” Two years ago, he visited a small Jewish community in Pennsylvania with a 10th-grade delegation, to work as a counselor at a JCC camp. “We had a blank wall that we made into a comic book, with a story about Israel and its culture, to make people smile,” he says. “I drew the main character and the campers helped paint it. I’d like to do something similar. An artist [in Tucson] has already said he’s willing to work with us.”

In telling American Jews about Israel, Shecory wants to emphasize the spirit of unity that characterizes the country. “Sometimes the media show a different picture from what we see in Israel,” he says. Living near the Gaza Strip meant he was sometimes close to conflict, and he recalls having to miss school for three months due to danger from missiles. Children and teens were sent to the south, where they were hosted by families, he says. “The media didn’t show how people were caring about the soldiers and each other … sometimes it seems in war we’re more united – we help each other.”   

Music is a great medium for bringing people together, he says, and he’s brought his guitar as a teaching tool. “Sitting round a table or fire and singing an Israeli or Jewish song connects everyone.”   

Building bridges

Before leaving for Tucson, Shecory and Dinatzi were surprised to receive an email from Rabbi Samuel Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, who had just returned from India, inviting them for lunch at a restaurant near Jerusalem. “He was so inspiring and interesting,” says Dinatzi. “Rabbis in Israel are more distant.”

After their meal, a woman recognized Cohon and approached them, says Shecory. “She’d lived in Tucson 10 years ago with her husband. She was a community shlicha [ambassador from Israel], and told him how much his music had inspired her.” The woman was Yael Hess, wife of Yizhar Hess, Tucson’s second community shaliach. In Israel, synagogues function as places of prayer, but don’t have the community opportunities, youth groups, schools and events that American shuls offer, says Shecory.  “It impressed me how much impact a shlicha — or shinshin — can have.”

As well as teaching, the shinshinim are eager to learn from their host community. “I’m interested to see how people act in their daily life, and how they define themselves as Jews,” says Shecory. “In Portland, we had to do things to show we were Jews, to keep kosher, or not eat bread at Passover. Being a Jew in Israel, a big part is just living here, and loving and serving the country. You’re proud of being a Jew, but you don’t have to prove it.”

On their return to Israel, both Shecory and Dinatzi will fulfill their military obligations before starting college — Shecory to study architecture, and Dinatzi to pursue her dream of becoming a biochemical researcher and discovering more about the human brain.

“The shinshinim program in Tucson is proven to be the most effective bridge builders between Tucson and Israel,” says Barel, “and we are seeing the results every day.”

Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.