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Grandpa and the Tzofim Friendship Caravan

Grandpa and the Tzofim Friendship Caravan

Every family has its stories. They're the ones told so many times that you know all the details even if you weren't actually there. This is one of mine.

In the summer of 1972, my mother was 17 and my uncle Marc almost 16. Together with my grandparents, they lived in a small house - with one bathroom and no air conditioning - in suburban Cleveland. When my grandfather announced that an Israeli teenager would be joining the crowded household for several weeks, my mom responded predictably to the prospect of sharing space with a foreign boy her age: she threw a fit.

In the retelling, she refused to accept the presence in her home of a "dirty, smelly Israeli who doesn't speak English." Her tantrum continued: "Who cares if this kid is Jewish? Let him go ruin someone else's summer!"

My grandfather, ignoring her complaints, welcomed young Danny Ben Zvi from Haifa into their home. Danny won everyone - even my mom - over immediately and became like a member of the family. The impact of his short stint visiting American Boy Scout encampments that summer eventually would be felt far beyond my grandparents' home and forever changed the way Israeli youth would interact with their North American counterparts in the coming decades.

Danny was part of the Israeli scouting movement, the Tzofim (Hebrew for scouts), and one of several scouts sent to the US to visit a few area camps and local JCCs. It was clear to my ardently Zionist grandfather, however, that a larger section of the American Jewish community could benefit from a mifgash (encounter) experience with these young Israelis. Who better than energetic teenagers, full of hope and promise, to represent the still-young State of Israel to Americans, most of whom had never visited Israel or met a sabra (native Israeli)?

As the story goes, excited conversations between Dan "Danko" Koren, the Tzofim representative to the US, and my grandfather in my grandparents' living room led to the birth of the Tzofim Friendship Caravan. The Caravan, a group of Tzofim chosen for their talent and personality, would travel around the US each summer performing Israeli songs and folk dances at summer camps, JCCs and synagogues. Housed by volunteer host families in each city, the Caravan would bring the culture and vital pioneering spirit of Israel to communities throughout the country. The first Caravan launched in 1973; eventually hundreds of families would have their own Danny Ben Zvis to adopt, and thousands of people would experience the energy and excitement of Israel's youth.

For my family, the Tzofim Caravan represents more than singing and dancing; it is the foundation of our very personal, ongoing connections with Israel and Israelis. Multiple generations of Tzofim became part of our extended family, staying in close contact long before the days of email, Facebook, or cheap international calling. One summer, Uncle Marc drove the Caravan bus, transporting the Tzofim from gig to gig, city to city. He grew close to Anat, one of the Tzofim, and they kept in touch. After he made aliyah in 1982 (largely based on his visits to former Tzofim in their homes in Israel), Marc and Anat married and had three children. The youngest, Tomer, is named for my grandfather, who never ceased to beam with pride over his sabra descendants.

Today, four caravans of Tzofim travel throughout North America, performing for hundreds of camps and community groups each summer. Their act now includes modern and classic Israeli tunes, and incorporates music and dance from all over the world. But the message remains the same: Am Yisrael Chai, the Israeli people lives.

Caryn Roman spent many childhood summers, together with her grandfather, posting advertisements for Tzofim Caravan shows in Cleveland. She is pursuing a master's degree in Jewish education at HUC-JIR in New York and coordinates the Union for Reform Judaism's pilot fellowship for young adult leaders, Bonim Kehilah . A native of Detroit, she is a proud alumna of NFTY and URJ camping programs.

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