The Jewish people need more ‘Sharanskys’

The challenge is clear. The gap between the Jewish communities around the world and in Israel is growing larger, and mutual understanding is considered less important to both communities.

Natan Sharansky  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Natan Sharansky
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Last November, I witnessed a remarkable moment in Stamford, Connecticut.
It was a picture that a thousand words can’t describe.
I stepped into a ballroom full of young Israelis who danced to Israeli music as part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s North American shlichim (emissaries) conference. More than 300 long-term emissaries were attending the conference, and the energy they displayed is part of every such gathering that is held on annual basis, but this time it was clear that something was different.
In the middle of the circle, I found Natan Sharansky dancing with a huge smile on his face. Yes, my organization’s chairman; the man who just won the Israel Prize and whom, in every single Jewish community I visited with him for the last seven years, people of all ages have fought to get selfie with. He is their hero. On this night, he danced and enjoyed the moment.
When we returned to our seats, I told Natan that he seemed like someone who felt young again. He responded that such a setting represents the only place where he feels at home. He explained that in Israel he feels like the emissary of the Diaspora, and that in Jewish communities around the world he feels like an emissary of Israel. Therefore, the only scenario in which he spends time with people like himself is when he is with the Jewish Agency shlichim.
The challenge is clear. The gap between the Jewish communities around the world and in Israel is growing larger, and mutual understanding is considered less important to both communities. We live in a world of overwhelming data, and we usually base our opinions and values upon a social media algorithm that shows us only people who are similar to us. It’s not surprising, then, that we don’t feel connected to those people whom we don’t meet.
One of the effective ways to make an impact on others is through knowledge, experiences, and engagement. The Jewish Agency’s emissary program aims to connect deeply with young Jews wherever they are, as well as to design and lead programs that build and sustain lifelong, meaningful relationships.
Under Natan’s leadership, we have grown the corps of shlichim by more than 45%, surpassing 2,000 emissaries two years ago on the way to a goal of 2,500 by 2020.
We have more than 10 types of shlichim who serve more than 800 groups, including as camp counselors, representatives on college and university campuses, and staff in Jewish schools and community organizations. While abroad, the emissaries inspire others and receive inspiration, which they bring back to the Israeli people when they return. Very few people in the Jewish world are given the opportunity to have this kind of meaningful and powerful experience. I was one of those lucky people who served as an emissary – it changed my life and I’m grateful for that.
Natan has been an emissary all his life. The meaning and actions of shlichut (emissary work) are ingrained in his very being. But one Natan is not enough. We need more “Sharanskys” to be emissaries for the Jewish people. That is why we have created the Shlichut Institute, so that we can better train our emissaries to continue Natan’s sacred work. The institute – launched at our March 7 event in New York that celebrated Natan’s nine years of leadership at the Jewish Agency – will provide all shlichim with advanced continued education, tools and technology to enhance their professionalism and effectiveness.
This new, expertly trained generation of Israeli emissaries promises to forge unprecedented connections between Israel and the Diaspora as well as between all Jews. Why are we so confident about that? Because the shlichim are all inspired by the textbook definition of a successful emissary: Natan Sharansky.

Yehuda Setton is director of Shlichut and Israel Fellows at the Jewish Agency for Israel.