A YOUNG olah, newly arrived from France, waves an Israeli flag after disembarking from a plane upon arriving in Israel on a special flight organized by the Jewish Agency at Ben-Gurion Airport, last year..
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
One of my most memorable moments as a shlicha (Israeli emissary) in Cincinnati came on a seemingly random Sunday in February. It wasn’t an elaborate production, a “big show” or high-tech extravaganza. Rather, it was a meaningful day of learning for the Jewish community of Cincinnati to come together, learn more, be bold and reflect on and strengthen their relationship to the Jewish state.
As one of the 11 events our community organized for Israel’s 70th birthday, about 200 people gathered to hear Dr. Zohar Raviv – international vice president of education for Taglit-Birthright Israel – speak about our relationship with Israel and the different narratives and lenses through which we understand and connect to Israel. Participants attended 10 different workshops led by rabbis and local Jewish educators who each chose a topic to explore issues related to contemporary Israel while placing it in context of Israel’s declaration of independence. We delved into some tough, sensitive issues and closed the program with a reenactment of the declaration of independence itself back in 1948.
It was the perfect representation of my four years as a shlicha in Cincinnati. I put a lot of effort into building true, strong, and sincere bridges between the local community and Israel. I intentionally brought complex, realistic voices from Israel – perspectives that offered a complex understanding of Israel, the opportunity to ask questions, to examine one’s relationship with Israel, and to get engaged with Israel in general but even more with specific issues that a person is passionate about and wants to see change.
Three months after my return to Israel, I was excited to attend The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA) in Tel Aviv for a continuation of the meaningful conversations about Israel-Diaspora relations that I’ve come to value so much. I was particularly honored to be one of the leaders of “It’s Complicated,” a GA session about Israel education. The discussion dealt with the complexities of Israel education and the need to give the young generation the tools to understand modern Israel – keeping it real. We need to trust that young adults, teens and kids can handle that complexity, love Israel, and become even more engaged about things they want to see changed in Israel.
Upon completing my shlichut in Cincinnati, I became one of the hundreds of Jewish Agency shlichim who return home to Israel each year following transformative professional and personal experiences. We return infused with motivation and a strong desire to influence society, and we join a shlichut alumni network that aims to create a platform of diverse programs designed to promote a generation of leaders in all sectors – social, governmental, and business – who are committed to the Jewish world. The Jewish Federation GA came at the intersection of two defining eras in my life, as well as a crucial time for Israel-Diaspora relations.
Israel in the Midwest
As a shlicha in the American Midwest, I tried to make sure that my community understood Israel as a real place, and as such, not a perfect place. I offered various touchpoints for people to get involved and explore topics they found inspiring or frustrating. Together with other leaders in Cincinnati, I helped create a cohort of top local Jewish educators who are now in the process of changing the culture of Israel education in that community. I hope that I managed to bring more realistic colors to the picture of what Israel is, encouraging people to get engaged with what they feel is important and create a healthy developing relationship with Israel, and paving the way for the next generation to have the same opportunity.
Learning what a community is all about
Cincinnati, in turn, taught me about what a community is all about, how to create a big tent but still be bold enough to do what you think is right. The community taught me what true commitment to Israel looks like when you are not an Israeli. I learned what Jewish pluralism looks like and that if you have good intentions and you are open to dialogue and change, you can actually live together in peace. I learned about process, American professionalism, not leaving anything to chance, and so many more things.
The Kotel and searching for unity
Last year, the Israeli government’s freezing of the Kotel egalitarian prayer agreement that was brokered by then-Jewish Agency chairman of the executive Natan Sharansky was a moment which showed how much work remains to be done to ensure that Israeli and Diaspora Jews are united. That is what led me to write, along with some of my fellow shlichim, an open letter about the frustration
and anger that was felt in our Diaspora communities about different streams of Judaism not being recognized as “real Jews” in Israel. These difficult feelings are just another example of the strong bonds Diaspora Jews have with Israel, and what an important role Israel plays in their Jewish identity. They care!
Inspiring a new wave of emissaries
Today, I’m working as the content director of The Jewish Agency’s Shlichut Institute, which enhances how the organization trains its emissaries before, during and after their service. The Shlichut Institute is overcoming three particular modern-day challenges: the increasing number of shlichim, which leads to a wider variety in their backgrounds; their decreasing age and resulting need for more training; and the increasing complexity of the environments in which Shlichim work, due to Jews’ increasing unrest and uncertainty about the relevance of Israel as a part of their Jewish identity, but also the BDS movement and the negative image Israel tends to have around the world.
I’m fortunate and humbled to have brought back with me to Israel a set of life- and career-changing experiences and understandings. After all I learned in Cincinnati, I’m thrilled to now impart that knowledge to so many other emissaries in their shlichut journey and to inspire them as they work to forge Israel-Diaspora connections.
The writer is the content director at The Shlichut Institute of The Jewish Agency for Israel. Previously, she served as The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Community shlicha (Israeli emissary) in Cincinnati.
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