The Tzofim Friendship Caravan, which has operated for more than 40 years, is relatively well-known in Jewish American circles for crisscrossing the country every summer. Credit: Courtesy of Friends of Israel Scouts.
The Tzofim Friendship Caravan, which has operated for more than 40 years, is relatively well-known in Jewish American circles for crisscrossing the country every summer. Credit: Courtesy of Friends of Israel Scouts.
featureJewish & Israeli Culture

‘We are saving souls,’ says Tzofim’s first Israel-American leader

Ronny Urman, a former scout and founder of the Israeli Scouts’ Arizona chapter, tells JNS that Tzofim empowers Israeli-American and disconnected young American Jews.

Ronny Urman was 15 when he and his family packed their bags and moved from Israel to Los Angeles. The Montreal native left behind his school, extended family and nearly everything he knew.

Urman’s parents had immigrated from Israel to Canada in the 1950s. When Urman was 5, the family moved to Israel. But his mother fell ill and traveled to the Los Angeles area for treatment, and so the family relocated there.

“Moving to the U.S. was very difficult—without any friends, without understanding the language, culture and the whole environment. I was completely lost,” he told JNS. “I tried to do everything possible in order to be accepted by American society. It didn’t happen.”

Eager to bring a slice of Israel with them, Urman’s parents joined other families in supporting a Los Angeles chapter of Tnuat HaTzofim HaIvriyim BeYisrael, or Tzofim, the more commonly known acronym for the Hebrew Scouts Movement in Israel.

Urman’s parents asked him to give Tzofim a chance, and soon, the 15-year-old felt at home with other kids, who were also experiencing difficulty with language, personalities and adjusting to American culture, he told JNS.

Tzofim afforded Urman and his newfound friends a support group and gave them leadership tools and an understanding of the importance of the State of Israel. It also, he said, helped him “to be proud to be a Jewish American-Israeli.”

Some 40 years later, Urman is now president of the board of directors of Tzofim’s U.S. branch. The group reaches 4,500 young people in 26 chapters across 19 U.S. states and 30 North American cities. Many face anti-Israel and antisemitic incidents in school.

It’s time for Americans to learn that Tzofim is about a lot more than just singing. For one thing, it has about 5,000 enrolled children.

Urman’s lifelong connection with Tzofim was sealed in a surprise encounter amid his several moves back and forth between Israel and the United States.

Then living in Phoenix with his wife and young daughter, Urman accepted an invitation in 2008 from the local Jewish federation to join about 10 other Jewish community members on a philanthropy-related trip to Las Vegas. There, the group met Jewish mega-donors Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson.

Over lunch around a boardroom table, Miriam Adelson—an Israeli-American—noticed Urman’s accent when he introduced himself. She asked if he spoke Hebrew. He said he did. She pulled him aside to chat in another room.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Do you guys have Tzofim in Arizona?’” he recalled.

Urman was unaware of any Tzofim presence in the Grand Canyon State. He called his wife, Sigal, to confirm. When she did, Adelson charged him with gathering a bunch of families to put a local Tzofim branch together. “Find the right kids and create this thing,” she told him.

Sigal took the lead, and within nine months, Arizona’s first Tzofim chapter opened with 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders as counselors.

“I saw the work that went into that. I helped as much as I could, trying to make a living and volunteering with her,” Urman said. “Keep in mind that all the chapters in the United States are volunteer-based. And this thing was so amazing.”

Eventually, the Urmans were caring for 60 to 90 kids at a time. When their daughter graduated high school, they turned the keys over to the next head of the chapter and were asked to join the board. They remain on the board to this day.

Urman now runs the national show as the first Israeli-American in that role. The Tzofim movement’s greatest challenge stateside is broader recognition, he said.

The Tzofim Friendship Caravan traveling group members share their Israeli lives through song, dance and story in Hebrew, English and Yiddish, geared to offer a taste of Israeli culture to American audiences. Credit: Courtesy.

‘We’re giving them the tools’

The Tzofim Friendship Caravan, which has operated for more than 40 years, is relatively well-known in Jewish American circles for crisscrossing the country every summer. The traveling group members share their Israeli lives through song, dance and story in Hebrew, English and Yiddish. The program is designed to offer a taste of Israeli culture to American audiences. When Tzofim first opened in Arizona, people asked Urman, “Hey, aren’t you guys the singing group?”

It’s time for Americans to learn that Tzofim is about a lot more than just singing. For one thing, it has about 5,000 enrolled children.

“There are so many things that this organization does that people don’t know about,” said Urman, including a four-week summer program in Israel.

“We found out that the longer kids stay in Israel, they connect better to Israel and understand who they are,” he said.

Many Tzofim alumni can be found in leadership roles in Hillel and the Israeli American Council’s Mishelanu network, according to Urman. A survey that Tzofim conducted in 2022 revealed that 93% of its alumni believe that the program provides leadership skills. Some 90% said they would assume leadership roles wherever they could, and 74% said their time in Tzofim enriched their knowledge of Jewish culture.

Tzofim also cares annually for some 250 lone soldiers from the United States, preparing them in America for their Israeli army service and guiding those that opt to remain in Israel.

“We hold their hand whether they decide to go to a kibbutz or to a private place,” said Urman. “We connect them with an adoptive family, and then they go through the military. We are their go-to, even if they decide to stay in Israel.”

Urman hopes to double the number of North American Tzofim chapters in the coming years. In the past year, enrollment has increased by 20%, which Urman attributed to its remaining open during the pandemic, when young people were desperate for connection and when antisemitism in America increased.

“People were sitting, looking at their screens and running into antisemitism, not understanding what’s happening out there. Forget about college campuses. Kids in seventh, eighth and ninth grades are dealing with people talking to them about Nazis,” said Urman.

“They’re scared, so we’re giving them the tools. We have the professionals for them, and the program is done with such deep thought in order for them to be able to answer back, so they can stand tall and be who they are,” he said.

Extra support is just what many young Jews need.

“There are a lot of kids out there that are needing this other family to hug them, to join them. We take them and make them recognize they’re not alone but that they’re a group that gives them the strength and the power to do so much more,” said Urman. “From what I’ve experienced, I honestly feel that we are saving souls.”

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