Mind the gap year!

High-school graduates bring Israel to Jewish communities abroad.

December 29, 2016 12:15
the Jewish Agency

Rael Goodman, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Delegation in the UK. (photo credit: Courtesy)

‘Shabbat is coming in. I go to synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat and then to a family for Friday night dinner.

One of the amazing things we have in our community in London is that everybody wants to host us. So we have opened an online page where families can register before Shabbat, and that way we end up meeting new families every week.

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“I suddenly have a picture in my mind of kiddush at home in Israel, where my father blesses the children and sings “A Woman of Valor” to my mother, and I am flooded with feelings of yearning for them as I hear the familiar prayers being said in the background.

“Shani and I embrace and wish each other Shabbat Shalom, and I understand that I have made the right decision to come here. This is exactly the reason I have come to London on the Jewish Agency’s shlihut (emissary) program. The connection between all Jews is so important, and this is the most wonderful way to preserve it.”

These are the words of Shaked Weisner, 18, who grew up in an Orthodox home in Petah Tikva and is the second of four siblings. Growing up, she enjoyed going to a dance group and attending the Bnei Akiva youth movement.

When she heard about the Jewish Agency’s Shnat Sherut (year of service) program, which allows young people to defer their army service and serve as an emissary abroad, she knew she wanted to do it.

“I come from a liberal and open family, and my parents shared my enthusiasm,” Weisner says.

Shaked Weisner (right): ‘One of the amazing things we have in our community in London is that everybody wants to host us.’ (Courtesy)

Ever since arriving in London this year, her daily agenda has been dynamic and intensive. She lives in “a commune” of Shnat Sherut emissaries for the Jewish Agency in an apartment block in North London, which is adjacent to a synagogue and community center.

Weisner volunteers at four primary schools and high schools as a Hebrew and Jewish studies educator, spends her afternoons running activities with a local Jewish youth group, attends regular leadership and volunteer program meetings and is involved in a range of social welfare activities, such as collecting clothes for the needy.

Weisner is one of 114 high-school graduates who packed their suitcases and left last summer to be emissaries for the Jewish Agency around the world, volunteering in Jewish communities and making an impact on hundreds of thousands of young people and their families.

“As a result of the growing need for such emissaries in Jewish communities worldwide, their number has doubled over the past five years, and it appears that this trend will continue in the years to come,” says Tzachi Levy, director of the program.

The Jewish Agency has already made it clear that it plans to expand the program according to the needs of the various communities. Weisner and her colleagues were chosen after a careful selection process and underwent intensive training.

“Today they are spread out in some 30 cities around the world in an operation that is coordinated with the Defense Ministry, Jewish youth movements, Jewish federations and local communal organizations,” Levy says.

During their year of service, they stay either with local Jewish families (in the US and Canada), or together in communal arrangements (in Britain, the Netherlands, South Africa and South America).

The emissaries inject a young and vibrant Israeli spirit in their chosen communities.

They become involved in educational activities, teaching Hebrew, leading youth movements, and helping Jewish communal organizations and federations.

“We set out on shlihut with a sense of purpose of serving the communities and with the aim of imparting our knowledge of and love for Israel,” says Rael Goodman, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Delegation in the UK.

“In fact, it’s a win-win situation.

While we impart our Israeli way of life, we learn the language and cultures of different communities in the Diaspora.

We then return home with a strong feeling that we have made a lasting impression, and ‘import’ our newly acquired values back home as well, hoping to create a positive influence on society and raise a future generation of leaders sensitive to the needs and concerns of communities around the world.”

Back to Weisner, who is marking three months of being an emissary in London.

She sees her future as promising.

“It is the most amazing experience,” she says. “Several months ago I was a high-school student in Israel, and suddenly I’m an educator abroad, working as part of a team. As time passes, I find that I have a lot in common with kids my age here. When you’re not in Israel, you suddenly understand what it is to be Jewish. Nothing is taken for granted. I now understand the importance of going to synagogue, and the existence of the State of Israel.”

What questions are you most often asked as an Israeli?

“For many children, it’s strange that I want to go to the army, and how excited I am by the prospect of joining the IDF as a soldier. I am often asked what we learn in school, and how the teachers were. Mostly they are interested in our daily lives in Israel. What do we do with friends? What do we talk about? Most of them also don’t know Hebrew, and it’s magical for them to discover the meaning of our names in Hebrew.”

How do you cope with missing home?

“I tell myself that this is part of the experience and part of the idea. At home, they really strengthen and support me, and they’re proud of what I’m doing. It’s all part of growing up. The moment I understand that I am a person standing on my own two feet, everything is okay.”

HILA LEVIZON, 18, from Moshav Hadar is another emissary in the London commune who volunteered and trained others in youth movements in Israel over the past three years.

“I decided to do a year of service as early as ninth grade, because I wanted to be more exposed to the world,” she says.

“The question was within what framework? I went to the Jewish Agency in the end because I think this is the program to which I can contribute the most, and get the most out of at the same time. I have now been in London for more than three months, and I really feel that I made the right choice. I have met new and different kinds of people with interesting ideas and lifestyles, but there is one thing that connects all of us: our love for Israel and Judaism, with the whole spectrum of ideas that these two concepts present.”

Levizon feels part of “the magic” of the diverse local Jewish community.

Hila Levizon(top right), an emissary in the London commune from Moshav Hadar, has trained others in youth movements in Israel over the past three years (Courtesy)

“I volunteer in the Israeli house in the Israeli Embassy,” she says. “We organize events for Israelis throughout Europe, special events in Hebrew for the various Jewish festivals, and their purpose is to introduce the holiday spirit and connect Israelis with one another, and with Israel. When you’re so far away from home, to suddenly feel the power of that connection to Israel and its people is just incredible.”

At London’s Rosh Pinah School, Levizon teaches Hebrew, including songs, Israeli dancing and games. At the LJYNetzer youth movement, which is committed to the ideals of Liberal Judaism, she plans programs and organizes activities.

Every week she sends out emails and posts activities on Facebook about historic events being marked in Israel, and shares Israeli slang.

Once a week she travels to Wimbledon, where she supervises seven Israeli children in the Scouts movement.

“It’s very important to me and my colleagues to try and expand our mission to include Israeli children,” she says. “It’s also important to their Israeli parents, who really support us.”

What have you learned about yourself during your shlihut?

“I have never had so much extended time away from home. It’s strange to say this, but one of the things I have realized is how much I miss my own school.

Here I am in London, trying to maintain my relationships with friends in Israel and of course my close contact with my family in all ways I can – WhatsApp, telephone and video conversations, Facebook, etc. After receiving my training, I flew abroad feeling that the other shlihim with me were like my family.

We meet regularly, and the two weeks of concentrated activities together with professional assistance, contributed to our feeling of being safe and together.”

In general, Goodman says, the Jewish Agency’s activities focus on building a connection between Jewish youth and Israel as a way of strengthening Jewish identity and Israel as a cornerstone of their identity.

“Aliya is at the heart of the Jewish Agency, we believe that our educational approach will ultimately lead to a growth in aliya. The more Jews are connected to Israel, the more are likely to take the next step.”

What is the greatest challenge facing you?

“The challenge is how to keep Israel a central and important part of the self-identity of a young Jew growing up in Europe and reverse a situation in which Israel becomes increasingly irrelevant, perceived through the media, which contradicts the liberal, democratic values they have grown up with.

In today’s “flat” and virtual world , the physical presence of hundreds of Jewish Agency emissaries around the world is of vital strategic importance, and one of the local Jewish community’s best tools in facing these challenges.

“The British Jewish community totals some 300,000 people, and is considered a well-organized and professional community with solid institutions and good schools. It is a very welcoming and warm community, and strongly Zionist.

“There is also the marginal view that says: ‘I can be a good Jew, but my connection with Israel is not necessarily part of my Jewish identity,’” says Goodman. “We see this especially among the younger generation.”

This is where the emissaries become so important. The Jewish Agency delegation to Britain has 28 emissaries of different ages, including 13 on the Shnat Sherut program, who are dispatched in dozens of organizations – youth movements, schools, communal organizations, university campus groups and others.

“We work closely with the UJIA, our strategic partner in the UK and many local organizations,” Goodman says. “They appreciate the value of dedicated educators with an amazing sense of purpose, enabling delivery of high-quality Jewish identity and Israel engagement activity.

“The emissaries work hard, but when they look back on this experience, they feel that it was an exceptional opportunity.

When they return home, they are independent, travel the country, hop on a train or plane to deliver imaginative projects to diverse communities. What they are experiencing will stand them in good stead for their whole lives.”

This article was written in cooperation with the Jewish Agency.

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