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August 12, 2016  RSS feed
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Text: T T T

Soldier teaches campers about Israel and learns about American Judaism


Ofer Nissim with (L-R) Shelby Freeman and Camryn Middlebrooks at a Rays game. Ofer Nissim with (L-R) Shelby Freeman and Camryn Middlebrooks at a Rays game. Even though Ofer Nissim grew up more than 6,500 miles away, his time in Tampa this summer showed him that Israel and America are not all that different.

Nissim is a 22-year-old Israel Defense Forces soldier from Nahariya. As part of his military service, he was one of 1,200 shaliach (Hebrew for emissary) spending their summer at camps across North America.

He provided first-hand experience of Israeli culture, history, and lifestyle to kids at Camp JCC, held at the Maureen and Douglas Cohn Jewish Community Campus in north Tampa. Making his first trip to the United States, his stint here began in June and ended earlier this month.

Nissim brought his musical talent, knowledge of Israel, and experience from the IDF, which he joined in 2014. He was honest and open about the dangers he has experienced as a citizen of Israel, including the Lebanon War and the 2006 bombing of his city, which is only 30 minutes north of Haifa and 20 minutes from the border with Lebanon. “To live in such a complicated reality is really hard,” he said, noting that he is often asked about the risks of living in Israel.

“Living that way makes you more mature,” Nissim said.

While there are differences between the Israeli mentality and the American mindset, Nissim believes there to be myriad similarities between the two cultures.

“I want to show everyone that Israel is similar to the states,” he said, commenting on different misconceptions Americans have about Israel.

Take food for instance. Israelis do not just eat hummus and falafel; they have sushi, hamburgers, and pizza. He and his American friends share the same favorite movies, songs, and they even use the same English-American jargon like “TMI” (too much information) and “ETA” (estimated time of arrival).

Nissim’s job was very important to him. “In some ways, I am representing Israel here [in Tampa]. People look at me and say ‘that’s Israel!’”

One way that he was able to illustrate Israeli culture was through the Israeli Day at camp. Once during the summer, the shaliach organizes a day for the campers to learn more about Israel. Nissim led a dancing class, while other counselors taught campers about Israeli geography, birthday celebrations, games, the IDF, and art.

He is also a proud soldier and enjoys speaking about what he does in the IDF as a commander in the communication/ technical department.

While he taught about Israel, he also learned a lot about the United States and American Jewry. Nissim said he was intrigued by this “whole different type of Jewish community.”

He attended Reform Shabbat services and learned more about Judaism in America. Because most Israelis are Orthodox, Nissim found the lack of separation between genders, the female cantor, and the use of the guitar in the service to be out of the ordinary. Yet, he said that he saw the practices as beautiful, a sort of preservation of the traditions with a modern twist.

He said he was warmly welcomed into Tampa’s Jewish community, which made him feel comfortable and excited to be here.

His first host family was Israeli- American. Living with a family who was both Israeli like him and also American like his home for the summer was what he described as a “soft landing.” He praised both of his host families as being warm, polite, and generous.

He also saw his mission here as applying not only to his time at camp, but also to the time spent at home and around the community with his host families. He spoke about Israel and answered questions he might be asked no matter where he was.

Nissim said he felt so connected to the American Jewish community here, particularly knowing how much they care about learning Hebrew and about Israel.

“I am so happy that I am here and nowhere else,” Nissim said a few days before leaving Tampa.

He truly enjoyed learning about different cultures and like many Israelis he hopes to do more traveling after his time in the IDF and starting college. Nissim is planning on attending medical school, hopefully in Israel, where he wants to stay to practice medicine.

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