When they least expect it, Tomi Levinson and Lior Sulami, are captivated by what they teach their kids at the J’s Summer Camp.
“I read the little kids a book. It’s called The Lion That Loved Strawberries,” Levinson said. “I told them that every time I say strawberries in the book, they should say ‘toot,’ which is strawberries in Hebrew, and so they would just walk through the corridors screaming, ‘toot!’”
Likewise, when Sulami taught her group an Israeli song, “after one class they came back again to my class and just started singing along,” she said. “It was in Hebrew and I was very surprised.”
But that’s exactly what Levinson and Sulami, the Israeli JAFI schlichot (emissaries) at this year’s summer camp, are here to do – bring their knowledge and love for the Jewish state the campers.
Fresh from their military service, Levinson, 21, of Tel El in the Galilee, and Sulami, 20, of Ganey Tikun, near Tel Aviv, were selected to be schlichot because of the talents they could bring to the program.
In Sulami’s case, she was actually recruited out of the blue.
“I just got a phone call from the Jewish Agency,” she said. “They said they had all the information about me from the army, so they knew I had good English, I can play the piano, sing and dance. They thought I’d be good for this program.”
Small wonder she’s teaching song and dance units at camp.
“I love working with people,” said Sulami, who plans to study nursing in college. “That’s what I did in my military service, working with people helping them. I was kind of a social worker. We have soldiers from all over the world, soldiers with financial problems, so I helped them.”
Levinson, who will be traveling through South America after this summer, was a social worker for at-risk youth when she was in the army. She brings the skills she learned in that job to camp, teaching children about Israeli culture.
“Israeli culture is pretty much anything what I want to be,” she said. One week, “I did Israeli inventions, kind of showing the kids things that come from Israel that they didn’t know of and they were kind of surprised about that – the USB, cherry tomato – things they kind of use every day and see every day that are Israeli.”
She’s also taught about places in Israel and Jewish holidays and, of course, food.
“I made them shakshuka, tahini, Israeli salad, chocolate balls. We cooked together, with the kids.”
Away from camp, Levinson and Sulami have visited Lexington and Chicago, and have enjoyed home hospitality with Louisville families, including some Israeli ones, which has smoothed the transition.
“It’s an experience, not like living at home with my family, Sulami said, “But after a few days you definitely get attached to the family, to the parents, the kids. “After I while, I felt like it was my family. I have two families – one in Israel, one here.”
For Levinson, who will backpack through Asia and New Zealand when she’s done here, the size of America takes her aback, something that became apparent during their Chicago trip.
“Everything is really big, which is weird because everything is very close to us in Israel,” she said. “The furthest [place in Israel] is six hours and seven hours. We traveled to Chicago in seven hours.”