It's not unusual to see visiting Israelis around town. Last weekend, however, there were 80 of them -- all young Orthodox women from the National Service program, or Sherut Leumi, for observant Jews who opt out of the country's required two-year military service because of religious beliefs. Most participants end up working in hospitals or schools in Israel, but a few get the chance to spend their second year abroad as emissaries.
This year, Philadelphia was selected as the site of the annual conference for the young women who've been assigned to various cities throughout the United States and Canada. Three of them have been here since the fall, working with children at Torah Academy and Kohelet Yeshiva High School.
"I wanted to come here to show the beautiful side of Israel, to connect people to Israel," said Hava Sadigurschi, 19, of Kedumim.
She had plenty of help doing that on Friday morning, as her fellow b'not sherut, literally "daughters of the service," split up to run activities related to the diversity of Israel.
For Zehava Mekonen, whose parents immigrated to Netivot from Ethiopia in 1984, it was a perfect theme. Mekonen said her family's passion for the country was the main reason she wanted to represent Israel abroad. A $25,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Partnership 2000 initiative, which is designed to boost connections to Netivot-Sedot, the area's sister city in the Negev, covers her expenses here.
"It brings an aspect of Israel to our local community," said Jeri Zimmerman, director of Israel and overseas programs for the Federation.
Aside from organizing special activities, putting up bulletin boards about Israel and serving as teaching assistants, the trio host a homework night for kids to get help with Hebrew once a week in Elkins Park and Lower Merion.
While most of their time is spent in the Orthodox community, they've also spoken in the past at other day schools and volunteered at public events, such as the annual Israel Independence Day celebration held at Penn's Landing.
Sadigurschi said she's been impressed by how welcoming everyone has been, whether at the schools or at a Shabbat dinner.
"Almost any student I can just go and talk to," she said. "The community is like family. It's an amazing place to be."