A New Chapter
Bnei Akiva brings extended programming to West Bloomfield.
When cousins Amots, 25, and Atai Amiram, 23, came to West Bloomfield last August from Kibbutz Lavi in the lower Galilee area of Israel, they didn’t know a soul.
They leave next week, having made an impact at a local day school and synagogue, and with a community-full of friends who rotated invitations to their homes for each Shabbat and every Jewish holiday since they arrived.
Before they go, the young men will be honored for their contributions at the June 13 annual dinner at Ohel Moed of Shomrey Emunah, the synagogue where they spent much of their time.
Amots and Atai are here as shlichim (emissaries or representatives) of Bnei Akiva, a New York-based organization providing religious Zionist education and programs for Jewish youth, along with their families and communities throughout the world.
They spent the past 10 months volunteering at Ohel Moed and the Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA), both in West Bloomfield.
“They have done great things and have added a lot of energy to the community, which has completely embraced them,” said Ohel Moed member Ethan Gilan.
“When we came here we didn’t know anyone,” Amots said. “Right from the first moment, I felt the warm welcome and the love to have us as part of the community. I feel like a friend with the people; I feel free to approach them about any matter. I feel comfortable and happy to spend meals on Shabbat with them. The people are taking care of us 24/7 and with a smile; and there is no better feeling than that.”
There has been a Bnei Akiva presence in Oak Park for five years and in Southfield — now headed by Erica Kelman, 17, of Southfield — for 35 years, with volunteers in each city becoming involved with a synagogue, school and community.
The West Bloomfield inclusion is new, but on the agenda of both FJA and Bnei Akiva for quite some time.
“It has always been a dream of FJA to have shlichim to enhance the Zionist mission of the school,” said Rabbi Eric Grossman, head of school.
The partnership was initiated through the collaboration of Grossman and Israeli Shmulik Fried, Bnei Akiva’s Midwest regional director. Fried and his wife, Dina, have spent the past two years in Metro Detroit on behalf of the organization, with Dina also teaching at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield.
With West Bloomfield and Ohel Moed looking to expand their Bnei Akiva youth involvement as well as adult education and holiday programming, Fried said “We made a shiduch (match) among all three.”
In addition to the professional leadership, FJA senior Eli Sherizen, co-leader of Bnei Akiva’s Oak Park youth chapter along with Hillel Klugerman, 18, of Southfield, was involved in the collaboration.
“This would not have happened this year without Eli’s initiative and Shmulik’s vision, and with supporters and workers behind the scenes,” Grossman said.
Wanting to connect FJA students to Zionism, Eli asked Israelis Ohad Orbach and Yishai Lev — the two Bnei Akiva shlichim who volunteered in Oak Park during the 2011-2012 school year — to spend time at the school.
“They had one day a week off from their other volunteering job, so I brought them to FJA during lunch time and we served falafel in the main hallway,” said Eli, 18, of Huntington Woods. “As students and teachers passed by, I would introduce them to Ohad and Yishai. People started to slowly catch on; the Hebrew faculty especially. After that, Shmulik told me FJA was looking to bring their own bachurim (young men) in, and the rest was history.”
“Amots and Atai are among 25 young adult shlichim now volunteering in North America,” Fried said. “They are a group who have finished army service and come as volunteers for one year.
“The two young men volunteer at FJA every day and do Shabbat and holidays as well was educational programming through the shul and the community.”
Amots and Atai have long been involved in Bnei Akiva.
“I started when I was 8 years old, the first year that you are allowed to participate as a chanich (camper),” Atai said. “After a few years, I became a madrich (youth leader) for fifth- and sixth-graders. I was a ‘Bnei Akiver’ for most of my school years. After my military service, I got the position to be in charge of all the Bnei Akiva youth activities on my kibbutz.
“My grandpa, who is also Amots’ grandfather, was a shaliach in the 1960s; my uncle, Amots’ father, was and so was my cousin and a lot of people I know,” Atai said. “I hope my children will also do it.”
Atai and Amots trained together for their current position in West Bloomfield.
Amots said, “Since I wasn’t ready to start school after the army, I was looking for something meaningful to do in my life. I knew this would provide the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way.”
A Hospitable Community
“Wherever someone volunteers, hospitality is arranged,” Fried said. “Bnei Akiva gives a stipend to use for expenses, food, transportation, phone, Internet.”
Beyond that, the community takes over.
FJA took care of renting an apartment for Amots and Atai, with a bulk of additional funds coming from the school.
The Ohel Moed and greater West Bloomfield community stepped up, helping to cover some general expenses and to provide furnishings for the apartment.
“I saw this opportunity to help strengthen our community,” said Ethan Gilan, who rallied the synagogue group. They came through with beds, desks, dressers, pots and pans, dishes and more.
“The Sunday before the bachurim arrived, [Ohel Moed member] Eddy Barak [of West Bloomfield] drove a huge truck through our neighborhoods and, with an able crew of volunteers, they picked up item after donated item, and within a few hours, an apartment was transformed into a home,” Gilan said during a talk at Ohel Moed. “Upon arriving, Amots and Atai were quite humbled by their furnishings and the community’s generosity.”
Gilan’s wife, Lisa, circulated an online link through www.mealtrain.com for synagogue families to offer to host Amots and Atai for meals each Shabbat and holiday.
“Families quickly volunteered and our community embraced the idea of inviting the shlichim into their homes to get to know them better,” Lisa Gilan said.
Bnei Akiva, translated as “children of Akiva,” is the world’s largest religious Zionist youth organization, with more than 125,000 members, from elementary school age through college, in 37 countries.
It was established in 1929 as the youth wing of the religious Zionist Mizrachi movement. The group’s objectives are to educate Jewish youth with values of Torah v’Avodah, loosely translated as religious commitment and study, along with working for the development of Israel.
Bnei Akiva has been operating on and off in Metro Detroit since the 1950s.
Many members of Detroit Bnei Akiva have moved to Israel, and a former director, Otniel Schneller, served in the Israeli Knesset from 2006 until earlier this year.
Nationwide, Bnei Akiva youth are involved in leadership seminars and local, regional and national Shabbatonim as well as a high school summer program in Israel. There are four Bnei Akiva camps in North America, with a contingency of young members from Metro Detroit going to Bnei Akiva-operated Camp Stone in Sugar Grove, Pa., each summer.
“When I came here two years ago, the only presence in West Bloomfield was SNIF, which is Bnei Akiva chapter programming,” Fried said. “They were meeting just once a month.
“After Amots and Atai came, they really, really pushed it into the community on a different level.”
The West Bloomfield chapter was founded by Jamie Rashty, 18, of West Bloomfield about three years ago. The group first gathered at Keter Torah Synagogue in West Bloomfield, where her family belongs, but now an average of 25 participants, from third- through eighth-grade, meet each Shabbat and on many holidays at Ohel Moed.
“Amots and Atai have truly brought Israel alive to the participants of the SNIF chapter,” said Rashty, leader of the group with Isaac Wolfe, 15, of West Bloomfield. “They dedicated their year in Detroit to ensuring the best experience for all participants in the West Bloomfield chapter and the Bnei Akiva youth group at large.”
Rashty and Wolfe also are involved with the larger Detroit Bnei Akiva teen board made up of participants from all three area chapters and led by Elana Greenbaum, 17, and Yoni Nadel, 18, both of Southfield.
“Amots and Atai have brought an enthusiasm to the youth of our community and specifically to my children that I have never seen before,” said Shaindle Braunstein-Cohen, dinner committee member, along with Ethan Gilan, Hartley Harris and Ohel Moed Rabbi Eliyohu Jundef.
“My 14-year-old son, Tzvi, is excited about being involved in the shul and has become heavily involved in planning and running activities for the younger children. His Shabbat afternoons are now spent at the shul assisting with youth groups.”
Lisa and Ethan Gilan’s children Eden, 13, and Jonah, 11, are also part of West Bloomfield SNIF.
“Mostly on Shabbat afternoons I don’t have a lot to do, but with SNIF I learn Torah and have fun at the same time,” Jonah said.
Ethan Gilan added, “It’s amazing to have the children in our community excited and engaged, and bringing their parents back to shul on Shabbat afternoons where some learn, some hang out. It’s all good because our shul is bustling with activity.”
Going To School
At FJA, Amots and Atai have been running informal programming and assisting with teaching since school started.
“At a Zionist school, there is no substitute for having students interact on a daily basis with young Israelis who can serve as role models,” Grossman said. “We can — and do — teach Hebrew, Israel and Zionism every day, but for students to really develop a relationship with the State of Israel and its people, teens need to interact with actual Israelis they can relate to.
“We learn about Israel’s endless wars, but now students can see the sterling character of Israel’s soldiers.”
Amots and Atai also traveled as counselors on the senior class March of the Living trip in April, spending time in Poland and then Israel.
In Israel, the students stayed at Kibbutz Lavi, where Amots and Atai live.
“They were invited to Atai’s home by his parents,” Grossman said. “Our students now have a home-away-from home in Israel, and a family they can connect with.”
Celebrations And Activities
At Ohel Moed, Amots and Atai “planned movie nights, barbecues, break-the-fast gatherings and, before Sukkot, they volunteered to help anyone needing assistance in putting up a sukkah,” Ethan Gilan said. They also regularly checked the synagogue’s eruv (ritual enclosure).
“On Tu b’Shevat, they organized a Friday night seder attended by nearly 100 people. On Shavuot, along with members Dan Mendelson, Hartley Harris and Debbie Devries, they helped plan a special family-friendly dinner and learning program, with sessions in both English and Hebrew, followed by ice cream at midnight.”
They also organized Cafe Ulpan, a Hebrew language instruction program for adults to learn Hebrew in a comfortable and casual setting at FJA.
“We emphasized the importance of living as modern Orthodox, which means combining the modern life with Judaism,” Atai said. “Israel is a place to live in and not just a place for vacation. The people in the community made a connection with real typical Israelis and got to see and learn about Israel in a new and different way.”
A Great Success
Leadership at Bnei Akiva, FJA and Ohel Moed expressed a desire to bring two more shlichim here next year.
“It was a successful year mainly because of the cooperation of the community,” Atai said. “That made us feel a part of the families. We have no doubt the connection will continue. The love and the devotion of the people of the community is extraordinary, and we are really touched by that, and we truly appreciate everything they did for us.”
Grossman said, “We see this program now as part of the FJA experience; we are in the process of securing bachurim for next year.”
Continuation of the program will be welcomed largely because of the impression left by the two shlichim who are getting ready to leave.
“Amots and Atai have made a huge impact on our community,” Eden Gilan said. “All the activities, like movie nights and Shabbat afternoon SNIFs, have changed West Bloomfield in a positive way. We are really going to miss them next year.”
Her mom, Lisa, added, “It is almost hard to describe in words how wonderful it has been getting to know Amots and Atai. They have become part of our family. They have taught us about Israel and what we have in common and what our differences are.
“We had many questions for them about life on a kibbutz, their experience in the army, their families, and we were eager to teach them about our community as well,” she said.
“Amots and Atai are warm, friendly, creative, giving, amazing role models and will be very, very hard to replace. We are talking about going to Israel next summer as a family,” Gilan said. “And one main reason would be to visit Amots and Atai.”
For information on the 6 p.m., Thursday, June 13, Ohel Moed of Shomrey Emunah annual dinner at the synagogue, 6191 Farmington Road, West Bloomfield, call Rabbi Eliyohu Jundef at (248) 320-6693 or email Shaindle Braunstein-Cohen at email@example.com. For information on Bnei Akiva, email Shmulik Fried at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman | Contributing Writer