I recently came back from a four-day conference held by the Jewish Agency for Israel, with 250 of its shlichim (emissaries) posted across North America. Each year, hundreds of shlichim from Israel are sent to work with Federations, youth movements, Hillels on college campuses, Jewish community centers, people interested in making aliyah and other groups. With the additional shlichim who are sent to work at camps in the summer, the total number of shlichim reaches almost 1,500.
There are many types of shlichim, including shin shinim, which is an acronym for young people participating in a shnat sherut or year of service between high school and army service. This gap year program is an increasingly popular way to contribute to the community and achieve spiritual strengthening prior to commencing army service, an Israeli version of tikkun olam (repairing the world). There are also community senior shlichim, like me, who arrive in the United States with their entire families, creating a wide circle of effect on different age groups across the community.
The shlichim program is a flagship program of the Jewish Agency and one of the most significant ways of fulfilling the agency’s mission of fostering a strong Jewish identity with Israel at its heart. The shaliach serves as a living bridge, narrowing the gap between the American Jewish community and the Israeli one.
One fascinating meeting I had during the conference was with three young shlichim from our TIPS partnership region of Hof Ashkelon. Shaked, Jenny and Oz described how the partnership activities and TIPS young adult leadership program led them to become emissaries of their country.
Despite these relatively new partnerships, 64 years after the declaration of Israeli independence, the gaps between the United States and Israel seem to be growing larger. Differences in culture, language, faith and knowledge of Jewish history and the Hebrew bookshelf widens those gaps.
While the American Jewish community seems to be facing a huge challenge keeping young Jews engaged and involved in Jewish life and the Jewish collective, Israel faces the challenge of a strong tension between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, a tension that seems to be pushing young secular adults to prefer an “Israeli” identity over a Jewish one.
The Jewish Agency for Israel’s new strategic program attempts to face these challenges. The emphasis is to connect Jews to their people, heritage and land (the State of Israel) during a period of continued erosion of solidarity. The collective Jewish identity that made us who we are, helped us thrive in times of success and survive through times of challenge, seems to be in danger of disappearing in the seas of individualism and globalism. The Jewish Agency took upon itself the task of reinventing our Jewish collectiveness by introducing new tikkun olam-style activism for young Jews from America and Israel to work to repair the world together.
During the conference, deep and sometimes vocal arguments took place regarding the future of the Jewish people and of Zionism. “The Jewish world is thriving, but that thriving happens far from the traditional Jewish institutions,” claimed Barak Loozon, JAFI shaliach to the Bay Area. “There are amazing new things happening out there; we just need to find the way to reach them and connect with them,” he added.
“The big challenge comes when we come to allocate the money. What is more important — to help a Jewish person who is currently in hunger or to make sure there will still be Jewish people who care 50 years from now? How can you even start answering this question?” asked Misha Galperin, CEO and president of Jewish Agency International Development. Our natural behavior is to answer urgent basic needs, but as has been proven in the past, we must not neglect issues of meaning and identity. In the end, they might prove more critical for our Jewish continuity, explained Alan Hoffman, JAFI director general.
In summarizing the weekend conference, Hasia Israeli, Jewish Agency deputy director general for community relations in North America, said, “The Jewish Agency is the communal table of the global Jewish community, where Israel is the central experience, and you, the shlichim, are its connectors in the field, strengthening that vital link between Israel and the Diaspora.”
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.