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BBYO Member’s Pen Pal Program Connects Local Teens to Israelis

Read this story in the Jewish Community Voice

When Wendy Sherman sought out Israeli pen pals for her BBYO chapter, the idea was simple enough; she wanted to educate her friends and herself about Israeli culture. What better way than learning from fellow teenagers?

The exchange would evolve into something much bigger. After several months of getting to know each other remotely, the Nefesh chapter participants learned they would have a chance to meet face to face with their pen pals. As for Wendy, who organized the program through StandWithUs, she recently was selected for a coveted spot with the Israel advocacy organization’s high school leadership program.

The Cherry Hill East rising senior’s desire to further ties with Israel started after her confirmation trip in 2013.

“I never wanted to leave,” said Wendy, who is also involved in color guard for Cherry Hill East’s marching band.

Realizing that it would likely be a few more years before she could get back to the holy land, she started thinking about ideas for furthering ties to Israel from home when the pen pal idea struck. Through StandWithUs, she connected with 10th graders from the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. A multicultural independent school, the Reali pen pals were a diverse lot: Sephardic, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi Jews and two Druze. By way of introduction, the students sent videos back and forth, first talking about themselves and discussing what life was like in their respective countries.

When they finally were assigned individual pen pals, Wendy juggled three of them. As they become better friends, the Americans learned their new friends would be in the United States in March for their 10th grade trip. As luck would have it, the Israelis were able to free up time to stop in Cherry Hill on March 30 to meet up with the American teens.

The Nefesh girls were anxious at first as they waited for their pen pals to arrive at the Katz JCC. But, thanks to many of the games that Wendy devised to get the kids talking, they quickly moved past the awkward stage and were all talking like old friends, hugging each other and making arrangements to meet again, said Wendy.

“After only knowing the pen pals (in person) for a matter of hours, it felt like we had known them for years,” said Wendy.

Jasmine Patihi, StandWIthUs tri-state area high school coordinator, said working with Wendy was a pleasure. Not only were her ideas great, but also she had the ability of sharing her passion about Israel in a way that made it infectious.

“She’s a leader, but not in an intimidating way,” said Patihi. “You can tell her peers admire her.”

Beyond expanding the pen pal program in the next school year, Wendy expects to become even more involved in advocacy for Israel and educational programming. In August, she will be attending the StandWithUs convention at the Brandeis- Bardin Institute in California with some 70 other teens from around the country. As she counts the days until the convention, Wendy will be working as a counselor at the JCC Camps at Medford, where she has spent her last 15 summers.

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