Feb 28, 2022 The JUF Magazine

Israeli Teens on a Gap Year Teach Chicagoans About Israel Through Interpersonal Relationships

When Chen Vasa from Kiryat Gat—part of Chicago’s Partnership Together region in Israel—was considering options for her gap year after high school, she wanted to learn about Judaism outside of Israel—and teach Americans about Israeli Judaism. She and twelve other shinshinim (from a Hebrew abbreviation meaning “year of service”) decided to spend a year in Chicago teaching, learning, and creating bonds between Chicago and Israel.

The shinshinim came to Chicago through the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which partners with JUF and coordinates locally with The iCenter. JAFI recruits the shinshinim and teaches them important skills they can use when they work in Jewish schools, and camps. The shinshinim also bring tzofim—a word meaning “scouts” but encompassing Israeli scouting conducted in Hebrew—to Chicago for after-school fun.

“The ultimate goal for the shinshinim is forming relationships and serving as human connectors to Israel,” said Anne Lanski, CEO of The iCenter. While the shinshinim interact with children, college students, local professionals, and more, “they infuse their settings with Hebrew, Israeli culture, stories, learning, and engaging with Israel in ways that are personal and meaningful.”

For Vasa, creating Israeli-themed events and meeting Chicagoans were the highlights of her trip. Her activities—including choreographing an Israeli flag dance performance at the Yom HaAtzmaut celebration at CJDS and serving as a counselor at Camp Ramah—taught her that “building and growing relationships offer the most authentic path towards connecting with people and connecting people to Israel.”

Elana Weiner-Kaplow, The iCenter’s Shinshinim Program Director, did the math—Vasa and the other shinshinim interacted with upwards of 4,000 students a day between day schools, public school extracurriculars, after-school programs, and youth movements.

Weiner-Kaplow helped to organize many of these programs and emphasized the impact even the smallest interaction can have. As she told one shinshin working in a Hebrew school, “When a young kid is running around the classroom learning Hebrew with you, when he thinks of Israel, he will think of you. When these kids think of Israel, they think of a friend.”

Vasa feels a deep connection to Chicago’s Jewish community in return. “The relationships I cultivated have linked me to the Chicago Jewish community forever. It’s a community I will always care for and be excited to return to,” she said.

She also formed a deep bond with her host family. “I truly feel like I have another mom, dad, 2 sisters, and 2 brothers after this year,” she said. “My connection with them is one I will always cherish.”

Ashlyn Gorlin, whose family hosted a shinshin named Yoni, also feels like her family gained an additional member. Initially interested in having someone around the house who could help her children learn Hebrew to communicate with their Israeli cousins, she quickly discovered that Yoni brought far more than education to the household.

“He loved cooking for us, he would help the kids with homework, and he was able to create individual and special relationships with all three of my kids at very different ages,” she said. Partially thanks to Yoni’s prolific Mizrahi cooking, the family started spending more time together at dinner, and a family vacation to San Diego felt even more special with Yoni.

“This is a lifelong relationship that we will have with him,” she said. “We touch base with him at least once a day.”

For more information, or to host a shinshin, reach out to Elana Weiner-Kaplow at