Israeli foreign-exchange teens are here not to study but to teach us about them

And they want to meet your group

SYMMES TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- For the next few months, Symmes Township resident Gail Duke will be studying in an Israeli high school.

Duke's mother, Yana, might be losing a daughter temporarily, she said, but she's also gaining one. For half the school year, Israeli teen Hadas Silver will be staying in the Duke home.

"I sent one to Israel, and I received one here," Yana Duke said.

Silver and Alon Peretz, both 18-year-old natives of Netanya, Israel, are spending the school year with local host families as part of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati's annual Chaverim m'Israel (Friends from Israel) program.

The program brings teens who have just graduated from high school -- and not started their three years' compulsory service with the Israel Defense Forces -- to Cincinnati to share their lives and experiences of Israel.

Peretz studied the Talmud, psychology and economics at Moshe Sharet High School. He likes hiking and playing the guitar, he said he's an avid NBA fan, particularly of the Chicago Bulls.

Silver majored in plastic arts and design at Ort Guttman High School. For the last two years, she coordinated Krembo Wings, a movement that brings together young people and peers with special needs.

Their first language is Hebrew, of course, but they speak fluent English. Silver's parents emigrated to Israel from England before she was born, so she sounds like a Brit. Peretz's family emigrated from Morocco in 1965, so his accent is not readily identifiable to a Midwesterner.

Peretz has already tasted Skyline Chili and Graeter's ice cream, he said, both of which he loved.

He and Silver also attended a Cincinnati Reds baseball game with a group of University of Cincinnati freshmen.

They found Great American Ball Park amazing and much larger than the new soccer stadium in their hometown. But since neither had seen a baseball game before, Silver said, they had to ask their companions what the rules were.

The two were chosen for the program from a pool of about 40 seniors from Netanya, said Sharon Spiegel, who runs the program for the federation.

The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) did the initial interviews and narrowed the selections to four students, which the federation interviewed via Skype for the final selections.

About two dozen U.S. cities have similar programs through JAFI, Spiegel said, but the federation's is unique because the students speak all over the city, to Jewish and non-Jewish groups.

"We need candidates who are very strong in their ability to work in a very fast-paced environment and have a great ability to connect with other people," she said.

During their year here, Silver and Peretz will speak at 50 to 60 venues for 5,000 to 6,000 people at a time, she said. It's a great opportunity for school children, church groups and others to meet someone from a different culture.

They will spend about 30 hours a week "actively in front of people," Spiegel said, plus many more hours spent organizing and planning their talks.

The rest of the time, they'll spend with their two host families, one of which has them for the first half-year and another for the second.

It's the second time around for Duke and her husband, David. A few years ago they hosted Peretz's older brother, Tomer, as part of the same program.

When Tomer was here, the family went to many more events than it normally would have, Yana said, which led to them meeting more people in the local Jewish community.

It was an amazing experience, Duke said, which united her family and Tomer's permanently.

When two of Duke's daughters had their bat mitzvahs in Israel, she said, members of the Peretz family attended. And Duke herself, a native Ukrainian who has visited Israel more than 10 times, has stayed with the Peretzes when she visits.

Now, she said, she's concentrating on making Silver feel at home so she won't feel so homesick.

"The first day she walked in, I said, 'Honey, if you want to be comfortable in my house, walk through the kitchen and open every cabinet,'" she said. "'Don't worry if I see you doing that; it's what I want you to do.'"

She told Silver that if she's not feeling at home after a week, then "this is not working," she said.

For his first six months here, Peretz will stay with Lisa and Josh Zelvy, also of Symmes Township. The Zelvys have previously hosted other visitors from Israel, including two women who came to serve as counselors at a Jewish Community Center summer camp.

Their two children -- now 10 and 7 -- loved having the women there, Lisa Zelvy said, so it seemed logical to host someone for a longer visit.

Although Peretz has only been with them for a few weeks, she said, it feels like he's been here six months. "He's energetic, he's enthusiastic," she said. "He's exposing my children, my husband and I to a whole new world."

He's been amazed at how the household is constantly on the go, she said, with both parents working and the kids to shuttle to various activities. He was also surprised to learn that the malls don't open until noon on Sunday, a day he usually works.

"It's been an awesome experience," she said. "It won't be the last time we do this."

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