Ethiopian Israeli teens and Michigan teens joined in weekly Zoom calls.
Ethiopian Israeli teens and Michigan teens joined in weekly Zoom calls.

The first participants in this new BBYO program report enormous success.

An experimental program has made it possible for Detroit Jewish teens to personally share experiences with Ethiopian teens in Israel. The first participants in this new BBYO program report enormous success.

Nitzan’s Story

I am always amazed by how quickly teens connect to each other and how they form these connections in their own unique ways and develop friendships that often last a lifetime. After COVID-19 descended upon us last spring and forced everyone to shelter at home, I decided to make lemonade out of COVID lemons and create a platform to enable these beautiful teen connections to form in a digital world.

BBYO joined together with the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), an organization in Israel that works to ensure the successful integration of Ethiopian Israelis into Israeli society, to launch a program called Bridges Buddies. The initiative is a Federation-supported ENP program that helps ENP participants improve their spoken English and allows American Jewish teens to learn about Ethiopian Jewish culture.

Nitzan Ben-Shaya
Nitzan Ben-Shaya

Without knowing how it would turn out, we arranged virtual meetings every other Sunday between Ethiopian Israeli teens and BBYO teens from the U.S., and created a partnership based on the Partnership2Gether twin cities in Israel: Migdal HaEmek-Detroit and Ashkelon-Baltimore.

The program enabled teens from different backgrounds to meet, laugh, learn and explore their cultures together in a very natural way. Each meeting focused on a different topic and, during our sessions, we started out as one big group and then divided into smaller breakout rooms, which allowed conversations to evolve and become more personal. 

As a leader in the group, I could have taught BBYO teens about Chanukah celebrations in Israel or about the alyiot (Jewish immigrants) from Ethiopia, but it was so much more personal for them to learn about it from an Israeli teen. And the same goes on the other side; I could have talked about celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving to Israeli teens, but it was better for them to hear it firsthand from American teens who grew up with these holidays and traditions.

I chose to work with Ethiopian communities in Israel because I felt their stories and traditions needed to be heard, and I wanted to expose Jewish teens in the U.S. to this special community. Ethiopian Jews have a beautiful culture and traditions that show Israel in a very different way than most others.

This program truly brought light into my life and filled my Sundays with joy and hope. It demonstrated how teens can become friends and form connections through virtual spaces (in addition to real-life spaces), and I’m excited to share that we are starting three new cohorts of the program this spring!

Drew’s Story

As a teen participant in the ENP program from BBYO Michigan Region, I am fortunate to have experienced the power of this incredible program. I had an opportunity to learn about the culture of other teens, who are Jewish like me, but live halfway across the world and have very different traditions than I do. 

Drew Cohen
Drew Cohen

Despite a pandemic that has lasted more than a year, and thanks to the power of technology, I learned firsthand there are still opportunities to connect with others no matter where they live. The ENP program brought this to life. I never could have imagined meeting Ethiopian teens from Israel from the comfort of my own home.

One part of the program I especially enjoyed was the social interaction. During the week, it was hard to get out of my house as the COVID-19 numbers were getting worse in Michigan. However, on Sunday at 11, I knew I had the chance to be social at our weekly ENP program meetings.

Another part of the program I liked was learning about a different culture. I found it surprising how differently we do similar things such as celebrating Jewish holidays.

I am so thankful that Michigan Region was a part of the first test run of the ENP program. I hope other regions can participate in this even after the pandemic is over because it is not every day one gets the opportunity to create relationships with peers across the world in a “face-to-face setting” through a Zoom lens.

I learned a lot from the ENP program, and I am certain that anyone else who participates in future cohorts will, too. 

Nitzan Ben-Shaya is the Washington, D.C.-based Maccabi World Union Shlichah at BBYO. To learn more about the Bridges Buddies program, contact her at nbenshaya@bbyo.org
Drew Cohen lives in West Bloomfield and is a senior at Bloomfield Hills High School. He is a member of Fisher AZA and currently serves as the regional shaliach of BBYO Michigan Region.