Israeli emissary connects cultures and inspires understanding

Though her hometown may be 5,600 miles away, 19 year old Israeli emissary, Gaya Kessler, has made Westport her home since her arrival last August.

Kessler’s bubbly personality and infectious energy has lent itself to her role as an emissary, a diplomatic representative, during her year long gap between high school and required military service in the Israeli army.

Despite her new experience as an emissary in America, Kessler is seasoned as an Israeli representative for multiple international conferences. “When I heard of this program, representing Israel and bringing Israel to America, it connected to what I’ve done up until now,” Kessler said.  “It was bringing yourself but also bringing your country and your culture, exploring other cultures and letting other people explore your culture.”

Prior to her arrival in the States, Kessler and the other New England-area emissaries trained for their roles as the face of Israel amidst a non-Israeli society. They learned the tools for public speaking, interacting with youth and informing the community of the Israeli lifestyle in a way relatable for Americans.

“We discuss how we can bring our Israeli lifestyle into the community but also how we can live the American lifestyle,” Kessler said.  “The program is we give to the community but the community also gives back to us.”

The program mainly involves lessons in Hebrew schools about Israeli music, food, culture and society with the goal of providing a connection to Israel. However, beyond their professional roles, the emissaries also experience a more personal homestay with a host family.

“As an emissary, Gaya is really dedicated to the programs that she makes, and I think her biggest hope is that they will make a lasting impact,” Abi Genser ’18, Kessler’s former host sister, said. “But as a member of our household she honestly brought my family so much closer together.”

These personal connections are what Kessler believes truly affect the community.  “You do bring Israel into their home and their families, but you don’t have to be an emissary, you’re just a person,” Kessler said of the host family experience.

Genser agrees that these personal moments build the connection that will last a lifetime.  “The best moments with Gaya were spent every day after school  when she would come jump in my bed, and we would just talk about our day,” she said.

Along with providing American society insight into the Israeli lifestyle, Kessler and the emissaries have learned just as much about American society.

“She came here trying to teach our community more about her life and Israeli culture, but I think in the end she actually learned more about our life and things that she never would have expected,” Kyle Ratner ’16 said. Ratner has helped integrate Kessler into the American social scene, hanging out with her at social events and even including her in one of the most traditional American high school experiences: prom.

Through both her professional and personal experiences, Kessler has learned the different social codes, customs and norms of America. “If you say America to people in Israel, you would get all the stereotypes like burgers and Donald Trump, but I feel like living here helped me realize how big America is,” Kessler said.

One of the biggest social differences Kessler noted is the prominence of sports in the United States. Recently, she traveled to North Carolina for her host brother’s hockey game, expecting a small turnout and only a smattering of fans for a youth hockey league. To her surprise, she said, “It was so different for me to see how when people go to sports games they go crazy. You see all the parents sitting on the stadium and every time something happens, they react so dramatically.”

Along with these cultural surprises are the awkward and embarrassing moments of adjusting to a different country.  “This one time I went to the movies with my host family and I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movies,” Kessler said blushing. “Then when the movie ended, my host brother was like Gaya I hate to say this but in the American culture, it’s rude to get up and go to the restroom in the middle of a movie’ and then I felt so bad. But then he was like ‘JK it’s not even rude,’ but I totally bought it.”

Even though she has many more months as an emissary, Kessler already feels she has made her mark on America and America has made its mark on her.

“I just got back from a vacation in Israel, and I kinda missed Westport, because I have a lot of friends here and my host families, and I love being here,” she said. “It made me feel like ‘Oh my God, this isn’t okay because I’m from Israel; I shouldn’t miss America.’ But after a lot of thinking, I realized that being here makes me love Israel even more, but it also gives me the feeling that away from my homeland I have another home.”