Israeli Scouts Entertain With High Spirits and Strong Vocals

Israeli teens Oded Rinsky and Shy-li Tal gave up virtually every weekend for the past six months in order to prepare for their summer gig — touring the United States as "emissaries" of their home country. It's part of a Scouting tradition that stretches back decades, even before the founding of the Jewish state.

In fact, it seems like many of their peers would have readily traded places with them; more than 3,500 11th-graders auditioned for a mere 30 slots in the 2007 Tzofim ("Scouts") Friendship Caravan.

The caravan is divided into three performance groups that travel separately — visiting synagogues, public and Jewish schools, as well as summer camps. Each troop performs a high-energy, song-and-dance variety show that blends old-fashioned entertainment, stirring vocals, and a few pointed messages about the meaning of Israel and Zionism.

Throughout the June 19 performance at Keneseth Israel, the 10 caravan members routinely pulled audience members out of their seats in order to dance to upbeat Hebrew, Yiddish and English tunes. At other times, the tone was more somber, as songs were dedicated to the three Israeli soldiers captured during last summer's war with Hezbollah, as well as honored longtime Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollack, who passed away in January.

Their final song? No surprises here. It was "Hatikvah," of course.

"We are here to bring ourselves as people, to show a different side of Israel besides war and politics," said Rinsky, a 16-year-old native of Herzliya, prior to a June 19 performance at Kneseth Israel. "There is culture, there is sports, there are so many other things in Israel that people just don't see because the only thing that interests them is war."

The Tzofim Friendship Caravan has been touring the states for the past 30 summers. Founded in 1919, the Tzofim movement was the first egalitarian Scouting movement, where boys and girls participate together, according to the Friends of Israel Scouts Web site.

In a country where youth movements are often associated with a particular religious stream or political ideology, the Tzofim pride themselves on being inclusive and apolitical, except for the fact that members are unabashedly Zionist.

Arabs and even Druze also participate, but often form their own troops. Yet they still take part in larger activities, according to Bat-Hen Zeron, one of the counselors accompanying the teens.

Rinsky went on to explain that "the whole beauty of it is that the youth instructs the youth, and the youth educates the youth. We do activities that have values of Zionism in them, values of helping society."

In fact, one of the missions of the trip is to raise money for Tzofim programs geared toward special-needs youth.

Tal, 17, explained that the trip is also about making personal connections — whether it's speaking with audience members after a show about life in Israel or keeping in touch with American families that have played host to the performers.

"We are here only for three weeks, and I am already writing e-mails to the last family that hosted me," said the resident of Ramat Gan. "I am trying to explain how it is to be a teenager in Israel. It is not that different from being a teenager here."

Yet it's not the same, either. Tal spoke about the war last summer and how her "Tribe" — a particular Tzofim group — hosted other Scouts from northern cities that were bombarded with rockets fired from Lebanon.

And considering the developments of the last few weeks in the region, it appears to be shaping up to be another tense and uncertain summer. This time, the teens have a break from the intensity, though the situation is never too far from their minds.

"My brother was serving in the army; he just got out. My sister is serving in the army, so, of course, it affects me," she acknowledged. "So my mom is really worried. But we don't live in fear, and I am not scared to go out and about."

Both expect to begin their army service next year. Tal said she'd probably try out for the Israel Defense Force's entertainment corps, but noted that it's very hard to get into it.

And as for Rinsky?

"I don't really want to go into entertainment service, I can contribute the most at the front. I guess the army is going to decide what I'm going to do because it's all about physical and mental abilities."



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