Making a difference abroad

A rabbinical training program based in Gush Etzion prepares aspiring young rabbis and educators to serve as inspirational community leaders in synagogues and schools around the world, specifically to combat the all-time-high assimilation rate.

ELIEZER SHAI di Martino (left) and Yehoshua Grunstein 370 (photo credit: Photos courtesy)
ELIEZER SHAI di Martino (left) and Yehoshua Grunstein 370
(photo credit: Photos courtesy)
With summer vacation over and students and teachers back in the classroom, 31-year-old Rabbi Ariel Tal, a Toronto native who made aliya with his family at the age of 10, has begun his new job as a teacher of Judaic studies at Kibbutz Lavi in the North.
Tal is confident that his stint over the past four years serving as a rabbinical emissary both in Vancouver and Toronto has prepared him for his career as a full-time educator in Israel.
But it was his participation in the comprehensive Straus-Amiel rabbinical training program (The Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary) based in Gush Etzion prior to his service abroad, which he credits for allowing him to function as an effective community leader in Canada, while at the same time giving him the tools he will utilize in his new position back home in Israel.
Both the Straus-Amiel program along with the Beren-Amiel educational training – under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone institutions, in collaboration with the Ner Le’Elef Jewish leadership training center – were established to prepare aspiring young rabbis and educators to serve as inspirational community leaders in synagogues and schools around the world, specifically to combat the all-time-high assimilation rate.
Since 1998, dozens of Torah scholars are carefully selected each year to take part in one of the intensive two-year training courses, to gain the practical skills and knowledge needed to serve in a wide range of community leadership positions in the Diaspora.
At the same time, the spouses of the educators and rabbis study at the affiliated Claudia Cohen Women Educators Institute, to receive training that will enable them to serve as efficient partners and role models in their adoptive communities.
Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein, who serves as the director of placement and training for Amiel and just published a book on prayer titled Daven Your Age, says, “The Jewish world is greatly in need of a cadre of spiritual leaders. As religious Zionists in Israel, we have the responsibility for serving Jews around the world – not just those who are religious, but to service the broader Jewish people.”
Grunstein’s comments are in line with Amiel’s core philosophy involving the building of bridges between Jews of all level of observance. He says that Amiel employs a four-pronged approach, preparing its students to make a difference abroad while also taking care to maintain contact throughout their service, to ensure they are succeeding in their mission.
The first instrument used in preparation is the oncea- week, seven-hour classroom training sessions themselves.
Grunstein says, “We give them the tools [as rabbis and educators] to translate motivation into action.
We teach rhetorical speaking, marketing, understanding how the governance of synagogues and schools works, curriculum planning, practical Halacha and more,” he says.
The second mechanism in the process, once the coursework is completed, is finding an appropriate placement. “We work very hard to match a couple with a job somewhere in the world,” says Grunstein. “We want to find a suitable environment where they can utilize their strengths, whether it’s within a community, on a college campus, or at a Bnei Akiva youth movement branch.”
Once a placement is found, Grunstein says the third aspect comes into play, with his office establishing “an open line of communication with those abroad.
Whether it’s trying to help them through challenges or problems, assisting with a drasha [sermon], an issue with Halacha in the community, etc. we try to help them. We don’t just care about Judaism, our goal is to connect Judaism to the Jews, and we try to help them [our graduates] through that.”
Grunstein adds that there is an Amiel Facebook group as well as a newsletter and regular mailings, where graduates can share their challenges and success stories, obtain program ideas, or simply keep in touch with each other and with the Amiel staff while they are abroad.
And finally, says Grunstein, “Our staff travels to the various communities to visit our graduates to see how they are doing, in addition to searching for other communities in need of our services.”
When visiting, Grunstein says, “we ask the couples, ‘Is your family happy? Do you feel satisfaction is servicing this community at this point? Do you feel that you are needed?’” He says that when a family feels it’s time to come back home to Israel, they come back. In fact, he points out, 98 percent of the emissaries in the program return to Israel eventually.
Upon completion of his training in Straus-Amiel, Tal spent a year as a youth director in Vancouver for the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, and then for three years taught middle-school pupils Judaic studies at a Zionist, Modern Orthodox day school in Toronto.
At the same time, his wife, Rachel, was very active in both communities in Canada, serving as a spiritual mentor for the women in both locations.
According to Tal, “What Amiel did was give me a perspective of the dynamics of the Jewish communities outside of Israel. I learned that you have to understand what a Jewish community is there, and how it is very different from here.”
He adds, “Thanks to Amiel, there was no shock factor when I encountered different types of Jews in Canada.
For example, there are those who identify as being Orthodox but drive to shul on Shabbat. I learned through Amiel how to adapt to these cultural differences from a nonjudgmental perspective, in order to try and bring every Jewish person closer to his or her roots. I believe that I was successful.”
By the same token that Tal credits his Amiel training for shaping the ex- perience in Canada, he feels it will allow him to succeed at Kibbutz Lavi. “Amiel demands a high level of professionalism from its rabbis and teachers.
Now I can bring that professional development I acquired to the table at my new job, whether it’s working with parents, punctuality, or the confidence in my public speaking ability – which I now have thanks to the program.”
While Tal will be teaching in a religious environment, Grunstein explains that upon their return to Israel, many emissaries partake in an Amiel program known as Yachad, which is geared toward serving less observant populations around the country.
According to Grunstein, “Yachad places rabbis in matnasim, or community centers in secular areas of the country, where the matnas serves as the Jewish cultural center. As a result of serving in communities outside of Israel, our graduates develop and understand what it means to work with secular Jews, and are able to translate that experience to communities here.”
ANOTHER AMIEL graduate who is currently serving abroad is Rabbi Eliezer Shai di Martino, who is the spiritual leader for the 400 to 500 Jews living in Lisbon, Portugal.
Di Martino, 35, was born in Italy and made aliya at the age of 20, before pursuing his rabbinical ordination in a Jerusalem yeshiva.
Fluent in six languages including Portuguese, which he learned “on the fly” when arriving in the country seven years ago, he says the most useful part of his Amiel experience was that “they provided me with an understanding of the practical aspects of the rabbinate and Halacha. I learned how to direct their real-life application, rather than just learning texts in yeshiva.”
Di Martino’s wife, Malka, who studied at Claudia Cohen, runs the local after-school Torah learning program for young children in the community and is in also in charge of operating the community’s mikve (ritual bath).
He says that he “would not have been successful without the Amiel program. In addition to learning how to give a drasha, among many other skills, I learned that it is important to understand Jewish cultural differences around the world.”
Describing Lisbon as being “mostly non-observant, but rather Sephardic traditional,” di Martino says that “Amiel’s inclusiveness of intellectually vibrant Judaism is greatly needed in the Diaspora. [Many graduates] go to small, faraway communities, and [Amiel’s] inclusive approach, which is positive and intellectually vibrant, is fundamental.”
Di Martino says that he is always in touch with the staff at Amiel, “for advice with halachic questions, for support, materials and ongoing collaboration.”
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, the founding director of both Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel, feels that his programming is playing an important role in sustaining the future of the Jewish people.
Birnbaum emphasizes how important it is that “95% of our graduates are in contact with communities that aren’t considered religious. Most Jews today are not shomer mitzvot [observant]. We need to instill a language that they understand. If we are not making that connection, there is no place for the rabbinate – and there is no future for the Jewish people.”
Birnbaum explains, “The question is really: Do we have a nation of Israel that is together, or divided into smaller groups without a connection? If we are not united, we have a real problem, and we must strive to be together, to pray together, and develop a sense of Jewish identity.
“Amiel is the place to prepare those who make that happen.”