Why would a veteran Israeli journalist take a few year break in order to serve as a Jewish Agency emissary in North America?
The Jerusalem Post asked that of Yaron Deckel, one of Israel’s most prominent and senior journalists. More than a year ago, he paused his career on Israeli television and radio and was sent as a senior Jewish Agency (JAFI) shliach (emissary), serving as JAFI regional director in Canada.
“Before this, I was a long-time journalist, for more than 35 years,” Deckel told the Post in an interview during a recent conference in the US. “I mainly dealt with the Israeli political turbulence, covering politics and general elections.”
Deckel held the post of the Washington bureau chief for Israeli TV and radio outlets, focused on the Jewish communities in North America. He also did a five-part TV documentary “The Israelis,” documenting the lives of Israelis living in the US and Canada.
What has he done since leaving?
Deckel arrived in Canada a little over a year ago when the country was quartered off due to the coronavirus pandemic. He is the most senior emissary of the agency, in charge of the Israeli delegation and in touch with local Jewish communities as well as authorities and government officials. He works with all of the 11 Jewish Federations across Canada and lives in Toronto.
“Many don’t know that Canada is the fourth largest Jewish community in the world after France. It’s a very Zionist community, supportive of Israel and very committed to Jewish life,” Deckel explained.
Years ago, Deckel worked as a journalist for Israel’s national broadcasting television in Washington, DC. When asked about the differences he sees between Canadian Jews and US Jews, he quoted his boss, Dan Elbaum, the director of the Jewish Agency in North America: “Elbaum told me: ‘you are going to be serving in a very Zionist community, even more than the American community,’ so I asked him, ‘how do you measure Zionism?’ He explained there was a survey that checked how many out of 10 [given] Jews visited Israel. According to the survey, around three out of 10 US Jews visited Israel compared to eight out of 10 Canadian Jews.”
Deckel traveled across Canada, visiting local leaders, and lay leaders' staff. “I noticed that the commitment to support Israel in the Canadian Jewish community is extremely high. Their care for Jewish identity and concern about its future is at the highest level that I’ve seen. There is true love for Israel and for being identified as Zionists. I think it’s incredible,” he said.
Asked why he decided to take a break in his successful career in order to serve as an emissary, Deckel said that he had been a “very sarcastic, cynical journalist for many years,” and that when he became the CEO and editor-in-chief of Army Radio, Israel’s most popular radio station, he realized he had to be “less cynical and less sarcastic – you’re dealing with soldiers.”
It was then that he understood that enjoys the position of promoting Zionism and being a manager. “I wanted the station to be more connected to the Israeli public – and it is not one sector,” he said. During his tenure, Deckel made many changes in this old-school station, such as choosing young journalists from varied backgrounds to be a part of it – religious, Druze and soldiers from the periphery.
After Army Radio, Deckel returned to the public broadcasting service but felt that something was missing. “When I was in Washington, DC, as a correspondent, I produced a series about the Jewish identity of Israeli American Jews and it won an award.”
He also began volunteering in the Limmud FSU organization, promoting Judaism in Russian-speaking Jewish communities worldwide. He also produced segments about Jewish communities in a number of countries, like South Africa and Argentina.
“I felt that the Jewish world suddenly became interesting and important for me, after covering politics since 1985,” he shared. He then decided to apply for what he calls “national international public service,” and asked the Jewish Agency to be involved.
“I thought it’s a good opportunity to study, learn, understand and get to know a huge, fantastic community and a country which I don’t really know,” he explained. Deckel said that he saw this as an “opportunity to combine my skills as a manager, journalist and loving caring emotions about the Jewish world and Israel.”
He added that it is becoming increasingly difficult to connect to younger Israelis. For Deckel, that’s where the Jewish Agency fits in.
He explained that while in Israel you can feel the Jewish identity in the very fabric of life, he now understands, after living in Canada for more than a year that “if you don’t put in the effort, it’s much more difficult to feel that you are a Jew.”
In DC, he would spend time with Chabad Rabbi Levi Shemtov. “I found myself going there for Kabbalat Shabbat prayers and for Kiddush. I went there so I could feel that I’m part of this wonderful Jewish world.”
Asked if he has changed anything in his personal life regarding Judaism since moving to Canada, Deckel said that “I definitely have much more appreciation for the Jews in the diaspora. I kept kosher before coming here and I still do. I keep the tradition, including doing Kapparot.”
Only now, Deckel has been hosting Jewish community members and friends for dinners, with “kiddush on wine, lighting the candles and with a blessing on the challah.”
“When I have people coming over for the first time for Shabbat dinner and there are females coming, I make sure to have candle holders for them – even if they don’t do it at all. But I want them to feel how it is because we do it according to our tradition. My daughter lights candles for Shabbat and so does her mother. So I want them to feel how it is to have a traditional nice Shabbat evening.”
Many Israeli emissaries, mainly those that are secular or traditional, come back to Israel after a few years and say, ‘I went on shlichut as an Israeli, but I have returned as a Jew.’ Asked if he relates to this phrase, Deckel said that he understands it.
“If you are just an Israeli, you are less connected to the community. Jewish life in the Diaspora is different from Jewish life in Israel. Here in America, you need to make an effort [to be Jewish].” Deckel told of a time he wound up at a Reform synagogue, “I thought that this is the beauty of the Jewish world. We don’t know it in Israel, and one of the problems that I have faced with the people in Israel is that they grew up according to the curriculum of the Education Ministry. Most Israelis have no sense of the Jews in Diaspora because the curriculum stops in 1948 when Israel was born.”
Deckel explained that the young shlichim that he manages, who are part of the ShinShinim program, come straight out of Israel’s education system. The ShinShinim is a year of national service that offers Israeli high school graduates an opportunity to delay mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces and serve Diaspora communities for up to 10 months.
Deckel said that “no matter what background these Israeli ShinShinim come from, when they walk into a synagogue and see a female rabbi, they are all in shock. They haven’t been exposed to the fact that it is possible for a woman to be a rabbi.”
“In the US, most of the Jewish communities are Reform and Conservative, but in Canada, you have lots of Orthodox and modern Orthodox synagogues. And even in this situation, the average secular Israeli who comes to a synagogue like this for the first time is shocked.”
Without knowing who the next education minister will be in the upcoming government, Deckel said that he thinks the next minister needs to add a curriculum about Jews in the Diaspora.
“I’m here in Canada and I love it,” Deckel said with a smile. “I feel like this is such a different career from what I’ve done till now. I highly recommend Israelis from all fields to apply for shlichut and serve the Jewish world and the Jewish causes outside of Israel.”
Deckel added that he sees his time in Canada as something that he has also earned a lot from. “It works both ways: You work with and support the Jewish communities but it also gives the shliach a lot personally and professionally. Its also something that I can say I benefited from as a family. It’s a game changer. It changes you. Being a shliach not only changes your perspective about Israel and about yourself, but also about how you see the place of Israel in the world.”