At the May 7 Taste of Israel festival, visitors to the tent with the large “Paamon” banner flapping in the breeze were barely able to spot Keren Keshet among the gaggle of teens in tan shirts and green kerchiefs socializing and selling cupcakes to passersby.
Keshet, 49, best described the group as a big Israeli family, and she is their leader. As head of the Philadelphia chapter of Tzofim, the Friends of Israel Scouts, Inc., Keshet helps to teach the 102 Philadelphia-area kids involved about leadership and Jewish culture. Most kids and teens involved have at least one Israeli parent who seeks out the organization to connect with an Israeli community in the U.S.
“They come, and they don’t need to explain [to] other kids why their parents are talking in Hebrew at home and why every summer they’re going to Israel,” Keshet said. “It’s a place that they feel they all have something in common, and they feel a sense of belonging.”
Founded in 1995, Tzofim is a volunteer-led organization developed as a way to grow and maintain the connection between “Israel and North American Jewry,” according to the organization’s website. While fourth through 10th graders can participate in scout activities and overnight camps, 15- to 18-year-olds can take gap years or make aliyah to Israel and are counselors that help lead the younger kids.
All of Tzofim’s programming is in Hebrew, though most kids chat to each other in English, making it a haven for bilingual kids straddling Israeli and American culture.
Tzofim’s 24 chapters, or Shvatim, across the country emulate Boy and Girl Scout troops, each with a unique identity. Paamon, the name of the Philadelphia Tzofim shevet, means “bell” in Hebrew, a reference to the city’s Liberty Bell. Keshet, who lives in Malvern, has headed Paamon for almost five years.
Keshet works for Israel-based software company Amdocs, and her job in customer engagement brought her to the U.S. When Keshet emigrated from Israel to Philadelphia 13 years ago, she sought the same connection for her young daughter, who was learning English and having difficulty adapting to her public school.
Within a week of coming to the U.S., a friend told Keshet about Tzofim, and they attended an event together ona Sunday.
“Israelis always find Israelis,” Keshet said.
Keshet was born and raised in Moshav Lachish in the northern Negev of Israel, the small, tight-knit community where her family owned a vineyard for table grapes. Since she was a teenager, Keshet volunteered in the moshav. When her eldest daughter was in the first grade, Keshet helped establish a school within the village that still operates. Previously, students from the moshav commuted more than 30 minutes to a nearby school.
Keshet’s mother, brother and sister still live in the moshav, and her eldest daughter is 21 and a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces preparing to become an officer. The Philadelphia-based family travels to Israel every three months to visit them.
“The house of our heart is still there,” Keshet said.
It’s common for Tzofim members to venture back and forth from Israel. Paamon has a shlichim program for young Israeli emissaries to stay in Philadelphia for two years. While the first year at Paamon gives the shlichim a chance to get to know the kids, the second year is when the real bonding takes place. In August, Paamon’s shlicha will return to Israel, and Keshet is looking for someone to fill the role.
Because Tzofim is volunteer-led, the funding for chapters waxes and wanes, and Paamon is still recovering from the pandemic, where it was difficult to adapt online because of the hands-on nature of the group’s programming. Fundraising, such as the cupcake sale at Taste of Israel, as well as contributions from parents, help keep the chapter afloat.
But in the past couple of years, Paamon’s number of scouts has increased to near the pre-COVID levels. Events with other chapters in Pennsylvania and Maryland have grown too large to accommodate all the groups involved, Keshet said, a good problem to have.
She hopes to improve the chapter’s outreach to other parts of the Philadelphia area.
“We hope to grow and expand,” she said.