New shinshiniyot bring love of song, theater to Tucson

Tucson host family members greet new shinshiniyot (Israeli teen emissaries) at Tucson International Airport. From left, Joel and Rachel Black, shinshinyot Rotem Rappaport and Ron Benacot, and Marla Handler; front row: Rebecca Black and Amir Eden, director of the Weintraub Israel Center

Recent Israeli high school graduate Ron Benacot’s get-to-know-you video for the Tucson Jewish community is rich with sight gags: see her jump up and down as she plays fetch with her impassive dog, or step up to hefty barbells only to lift the lighter weights they conceal (see www.bit.ly/ronvid).

Ron and fellow graduate Rotem Rappaport arrived in Tucson on Aug. 1 as the newest set of teen emissaries from the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Shinshinim Youth Ambassadors Program, coordinated locally by the Weintraub Israel Center.

Tucsonans familiar with the Hebrew term “shinshinim” will need to get used to a new variation, “shinshiniyot,” the plural form for females in the yearlong program.

Rotem’s introductory video brims with enthusiasm for her high school drama and social science classes, her youth group, family, and friends, and her small moshav (cooperative village), Netiv Ha’asara, on the border with Gaza (see www.bit.ly/rotemvideo). Tucsonans may know Netiv Ha’asara as the site of the Path to Peace mosaic wall.

Both Ron and Rotem come from Tucson’s Partnership2Gether region in Israel and attended the same high school, where Ron majored in computer science. She grew up on Kibbutz Nitzanim until her family moved to Moshav Mavki’im, near the city of Ashkelon.

Now in its third year in Tucson, the shinshinim program “recruits the best of Israel’s youth,” says Amir Eden, WIC director, and the military grants them a one-year deferment of their military service.

The young women will work with kids in five synagogue schools, the Tucson Jewish Community Center, and Tucson Hebrew Academy, as well as engaging adults in the community through various programs, serving as “living bridges” to Israel.

The AJP caught up with the shinshiniyot on their second day in Tucson. Although it was wrenching for them to leave their parents and siblings in Israel (Ron has a brother, Oz, age 23, and Rotem has a sister, Adi, age 19), they were already beginning to settle in with their host families. Rotem is staying with Rachel and Joel Black and their daughter, Rebecca, while Ron’s hosts are Marla and Steven Handler and their son, Aaron (Marla Handler is an advertising sales associate for the AJP). Later in the year, the shinshiniyot will move to new hosts, giving other families the chance to share in this unique experience. 

Both Ron and Rotem’s English language skills are impressive.

In Israel, students start learning English early, but they hone their skills by watching American movies and TV and meeting people “from abroad,” says Ron. Both young women served as counselors in their youth groups, and Rotem helped lead several recent Tucson delegations to her moshav. Ron is also a product of Tucson’s school twinning program, twice hosting her Tucson pen pal in Israel – and meeting her in Phoenix when her family took a cross-country U.S. trip in 2014. An avid traveler, Ron also spent a summer studying in England, went on a youth delegation to Austria, and visited several states on the East Coast earlier this year.

Rotem, who also visited the United States with her family when she was small, plans to bring her drama skills to bear in her work in Tucson, “to bring it from my own place, to make it more fun and active,” she says.

Ron will use song as one way to connect people. She took voice lessons at her school’s music center for five years, performed in Poland during a school trip, and has sung at memorial and holiday ceremonies in her moshav. “I just love to do it for fun, too,” she says.

In her work as a shinshinit, Ron says, “I really want to work with a variety of people in Tucson, to meet everyone, to be able to connect everyone,” not only as a teacher’s aide, “but as a person, to learn about you guys, and what you love, what your life here looks like, and what it is to be a Jew abroad, because I don’t know it.”

“I want to talk to people,” says Rotem, “and share with them stories, talk to them and learn about them — culture, people, places — just to connect with people.” 

The fact that both shinshiniyot are from Tucson’s partnership region will help to make the program stronger, adds Ron. “It will be super good.”

Those interested in hosting the shinshiniyot, whether for a family dinner, a weekend when a host family is out of town, or for three months or longer, should contact Eden at aeden@jfsa.org. The Weintraub Israel Center also would welcome contributions to Tucson hospitality for the shinshiniyot, such as tickets to sporting or cultural events.