Visit Israelis, not just Israel - opinion

Shlichim leave Israel to forge a deeper connection with the Jewish Diaspora, but a reverse shlichut could be the opposite.

 HIKERS FROM the Diaspora explore Israel. There is a missing link in the individual-people-land relationship.  (photo credit: SARAH SCHUMAN/ FLASH90)
HIKERS FROM the Diaspora explore Israel. There is a missing link in the individual-people-land relationship.
(photo credit: SARAH SCHUMAN/ FLASH90)

Twenty years ago, shortly after I got out of the army, I spent an entire summer throwing Americans off a cliff. That is, not exactly throwing, instructing them in rappelling. I was a “moshavnik” (meaning, I was born and raised on a moshav) who had just gotten out of the army with my broken schoolboy English that I hadn’t practiced at all during the four years I had spent in Lebanon and Gaza.

Every morning I would get up, install the ropes, make myself a cup of coffee and wait for the bus to arrive. The counselor would get off the bus, followed by half an hour of shouting, pictures, fears and excitement, and a few hours later on to the next group. I barely spoke to them, whereas they would always ask to snap a picture with the “Israeli instructor” before moving on to the next attraction. 

Until I went on shlichut through the Jewish Agency, that was the sum of all my interactions with Jewry from the US. I knew nothing about them except what I had heard in the half an hour that was once devoted to Jewish communities around the world as part of a social studies lesson in high school. And frankly, as a secular Jew, I couldn’t have cared less.

It has already been discussed and established many times how shlichut has an impact on the Israeli shlichim in strengthening the bond and sense of belonging to the Jewish people at large. 

Phrases like “I left an Israeli and returned a Jew” are phrases we hear often from shlichim and Israelis who spent a substantial amount of time in Jewish communities around the world.

 Masa Israel Journey launches its 18th programming year  (credit: Masa) Masa Israel Journey launches its 18th programming year (credit: Masa)

It has also been established that American Jews (and from other worldwide communities) who visit Israel feel a deeper connection to their Jewish identity and the Jewish people. 

But there is a missing link in the individual-people-land relationship – how do we connect the Israelis?

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry and its newly established National Alliance Strengthening Israelis’ Connection to World Jewry (AM”I), together with the Jewish Agency, are doing a wonderful job in initiating programs whose sole purpose is strengthening the bond between the Israelis and world Jewry. 

I believe there is an additional direction that has not yet been exhausted – the reverse shlichut.

WHAT IF the youth from the US who had rappelled off the cliff under my direction in the Carmel and the Judean Desert had seen making a connection with the Israelis as one of the purposes of their trip? If that had occurred, I assume part of the big “bang” that my shlichut gave me regarding identity and belonging would have found me at an earlier age. 

I believe that as world Jewry makes an honest and intensive effort to visit the Israelis, and not just visit Israel, the impact of their presence in the country, and the affinity the Israelis feel toward the Jewish communities around the world, will only grow.

Last week, I had the honor of witnessing this firsthand. Students from Jerusalem on the “I Belong Israel” program met with Bnei Akiva’s Limmud students from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa through a joint effort of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, division of Jewish peoplehood; the Maimonides Fund; and the Gesher organization. A week beforehand the youth from Bnei Akiva were instructed on the concept of “reverse shlichut.”

We made it clear that this is not a casual meet-and-greet, but an impactful meeting opportunity. A meeting that has added value can result in the Israeli youth asking themselves deep questions regarding their identity, their sense of belonging, and commitment. All this can come from the inspiring encounter with youth from all over the world who paid good money, and upended their lives, to spend a few months of spiritual uplifting in a seemingly strange land. 

The effect was immediate. Already in the initial conversations, the ice was broken. More importantly, the English speakers broke down the barriers of cynicism and were determined to shine a light on the importance of their choice in their Jewish identity, something that doesn’t always happen here. 

The youth from the southern hemisphere also left the meeting with food for thought: how would I see the world as an Israeli? How does the dwelling in the “holy space” that is the Land of Israel affect those who were born and raised here?

Educationally speaking, we couldn’t have asked for more. Collectively speaking, I see here a deep need in bringing together the two communities, (Israelis and world Jewry) which is not based on political or financial interests, but on a true spiritual connection as one people.

We at “I Belong Israel” decided to strengthen that connection through an innovative project that will connect youth from Jewish communities around the world to Israeli students on a joint, immersive, journey of a few days. 

In 2019, before COVID-19 disrupted all our lives, around 5 million tourists visited Israel, and of them about 1.25 million were Jews, half of them Americans, and half again on an organized trip or program. Imagine if a large portion of those visitors and those groups, of all ages, saw themselves as shlichim of world Jewry and its diverse values to the Israeli society? We would see a different Israel; we would see a different nation – accepting, open, belonging and stronger.

The writer is director of Masa Israeli (I Belong Israel).