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Dream Comes True for Family of Volunteers

The Stearn family (from left) Riley, Lisa, Shawn and Jonah

Readers of ESRAmagazine might be surprised to know how many enquires about volunteering opportunities with ESRA we receive from abroad. There are so many highly motivated people who want to take time out when they visit Israel to do something to help in some way. There have been messages from people as far away as Japan, many from Europe, and of course from the USA.

In most cases we are unable to accommodate these requests because they offer help for only a week or two and volunteering is an ongoing commitment, whether in our offices or shops, or in our English Tutoring Program (ETP). We always suggest that these visitors contact us when they are in Israel so that we can show them our projects and include them in our diverse social and cultural activities.

But then last November I received a message which was very different.

It came from Lisa Stearn, who wrote: ''My husband and I have a unique situation whereas we are bringing our 13-year old boy/girl twins to spend three months in Israel from December to March. While there we are looking to really make an impact on whatever community we settle in (still TBD). ''

Lisa indicated that she'd heard about our ETP and wondered whether her twins might be able to chat with Israeli teens. In addition, she asked about other possible volunteer projects in which the family could participate while in Israel.

This was not the sort of request I could reply to in the usual way.

Their plan to bring their children to Israel for three months sounded like a wonderful adventure for them, and it seemed to me that ESRA should try to find an opportunity for their kids to interact with Israeli kids and vice versa.

So I explained that our tutoring program was an ongoing one in which adult volunteers met with pupils in schools in order to assist them with their English studies. However, I promised to make enquiries once I knew where they would be located.

After we'd exchanged several email messages it turned out that the family, who had originally planned to stay in Netanya for just ten days, liked it so much that this was where they would be for the duration of their visit. So, naturally, I sent a message to Nina Zuck, chairperson of ESRA's community projects and to Ros Ben Esra, coordinator of the ETP in Netanya, knowing they would be in good hands.

Last week I met Lisa, her husband Shawn and their twins, Riley and Jonah, to talk about their unusual and courageous decision to uproot themselves for three months and come to Israel.

The Stearn family lives in Farmington Hills, Michigan, near Detroit, where Shawn is a mechanical engineer and Lisa an advertising executive. He got leave of absence from his job although Lisa had to quit hers. The children don't attend a Jewish school since their parents wanted them to get a wider, more diverse education. Contrary to what is happening in universities abroad, they said they haven't ever experienced anything that's anti-Semitic. They are active members in the community of 80,000 Jews, and Riley and Jonah go to a Jewish summer camp in Michigan, where they have met visiting Israeli youngsters with whom they have kept in touch.

Their decision to come to Israel for three months resulted from a 10-day visit last April to celebrate the bar/bat mitzvahs of the twins. While here they visited an army camp, and later, when Jonah was planning his barmitzvah project, (something they told me all Jewish children do in the States – a great idea which we could well copy in Israel), he decided to raise money for the IDF. In spite of this connection, Jonah admitted that he was quite scared about coming to Israel for three months, especially after the events here in the summer. But after a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Farmington Hills, Lisa told him: "You need to be proud that you are Jewish and not be afraid".

I wondered how they were able to take their kids out of school for such a long break, but Shawn explained that the timing was just right. "You can't take kids out of school once they're in high school, but before that you can get permission. We got the curriculum and the only subject which they really have to keep up with is math. And since I'm a mechanical engineer I've been able to help them with that."

They spoke to many people about their idea to come here. Ex-pat Israelis encouraged them, they got a lot of support from their Chabad congregation and the Jewish Federation of Metro, Detroit, and Nefesh B'Nefesh told them about ESRA.

That turned out to be a wonderful contact, as indeed ESRA has done much to help the family realize many of their dreams. Ros from the ETP in Netanya organized for the children to meet and chat with kids of their own age at the Sharett High School in Netanya. She and her husband Henry also invited the family for Friday night dinner, and Riley is now firm friends with their granddaughter. Nina organized for the family to volunteer in Kibbutz Magal in ESRA's Horse Riding and Arts Therapy Project. In their words, the Stearns acknowledge that "ESRA's programs offered us the opportunity to work with disabled kids and for our kids to interact with other kids in an Israeli school. Your footprints are everywhere in Israel".

Apart from volunteering in ESRA projects, the family has been learning Hebrew together twice a week through Ulpan Israeli at Netanya College, and they have travelled all over the country. "It was such a surprise," Riley said. "We thought Israel was just made up of small narrow streets like we saw in Jerusalem. We didn't expect anything so modern." "For sure!" added Jonah. "I can't believe I was scared to come here. It's really cool."

When the Stearn family leaves at the end of February, they will take with them memories of a unique family experience in which they did everything together. They will share with family and friends back home stories of Friday nights spent with hospitable strangers, of their bus rides offering Wi-Fi, of different but wonderful food and they will all, without doubt, recommend their exceptional venture to other families. 



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