‘Curious” was the word 17-year-old Blake Schulman used to describe how she felt as she left her home on Long Island for a week in Italy.
“I knew that the Italian kids were Orthodox, but I learned that they were so different than the Orthodox we know in the Five Towns,” she said.
After living in Rome with 16-year-old Giorgia Del Monte and her family, Blake said, “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
But it wasn’t only about making new friends, sightseeing and eating the best pasta in the world. The experience was also filled with more serious — and unforgettable — moments.
“In Giorgia’s kitchen, there was a picture of the New York City skyline with the Twin Towers,” Blake recalled. “After I explained to her about that day, she said that she’d never again look at that picture in the same way.”
For Long Islander Austin Rosenthal, also 17, a fun-filled week in Italy came with its own unexpected lessons.
“Going to Italy was awesome,” he said. “We did what friends do — talk about sports and movies.”
But for the first time ever, Austin felt the presence of anti-Semitism and concern over being a Jew.
“When Ben [his Roman friend] left the Jewish ghetto in Rome, he took off his yarmulke and put it in his pocket,” Austin said. “And when I asked him why, he explained that outside of the Jewish ghetto, there is anti-Semitism.”
Blake and Austin were among 21 Jewish teenagers from the Five Towns, who participated in an exchange program, part of an international inter-Jewish effort between Temple Israel of Lawrence, on the South Shore of Long Island, and the Jewish Community of Rome.
The first-time exchange program began in February, when the Long Island teens visited Rome for 10 days, each staying with a Jewish Italian “buddy” and his or her family. Last week, it was time to reciprocate, when the Italian teens came to New York, living with their American hosts for a week. They spent their days in Manhattan — sightseeing, shopping, visiting museums and learning about the lives of their American Jewish friends.
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, the spiritual leader at Temple Israel, who spearheaded the teen exchange program, explained, “The goal was for the kids to be both observers and participants.”
“This was not a teen tour, or camp, or a vacation,” he emphasized. “These kids have a mission, a job and a responsibility.”
Their mission, according to Rabbi Rosenbaum, is to promote Jewish unity and understanding, “to come to the realization that we are one people of one faith and one fate, and what happens to one Jew anywhere affects all Jews everywhere.”
Another part of the mission is to show the Roman Jewish community that it is not alone, Rabbi Rosenbaum added.
“They are one of the smallest Jewish communities in the world,” he said. “Showing our support for them and for the State of Israel will build bridges of understanding across the oceans.”
As for the job of the teens, Rabbi Rosenbaum said, “It is to learn from one another and recognize that this generation can make a difference in the world, and can repair the world as God intended it to be. And their responsibility is to understand the purpose of Judaism, and to be helpful not only to Jews, but to everyone.”
But for the teens, it was not all work and no play. Highlights last week in New York included the United Nations, a Circle Line tour of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a farewell dinner for all of the participating families. There were also group discussions about national and global issues of concern to Jews — ranging from the Internet, Hollywood and Nobel Peace Prize winners, to Jewish history and traditions.
“New York is so different, but I like everything,” said Sharon Habib, 17, of Rome. “We’re all Jewish but we share so many different traditions. In Rome, we were able to show our American friends what we do and what we eat on Shabbat, and now we can compare our lives.”
Rabbi Rosenbaum said that the exchange program was enthusiastically supported by the board and congregation of Temple Israel, and financed largely through private donations from philanthropists. He has recently begun to reach out to other colleagues and synagogues, to spread the word about the exchange program, and hopes to expand it to the Jewish communities in Florence and Paris.
“As rabbis, we deliver the message to our people about responsibility and connection to world Jewry,” he said. “But for words to have meaning, it requires action. One of the greatest needs among American Jews is for the future generations to take over leadership roles. These kids have become junior ambassadors and together they can transform the world.”
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