Famed author of Hebrew fiction S.Y. Agnon, the first Israeli to win a Nobel Prize, back in 1966, once said, “When times change, actions change. And when actions change, words change.” Agnon’s prescient words, spoken almost half a century ago, describe the current shifting dynamics in the relationship between Israel and the Jewish world — and how both the State of Israel and Jewish organizations must address those changes.
For decades, dating back before the founding of the State of Israel, The Jewish Agency for Israel’s emissaries (shlichim) has served as the frontline for Israel-diaspora ties and creating personal connections throughout the Jewish world. This year, more than 2,000 extraordinary Israelis in 15 countries will work on behalf of The Jewish Agency to connect Jews to Israel and to one another. Whether as camp counselors, informal Israel educators on college and university campuses, or Israel engagement staff in Jewish schools and community organizations, these shlichim connect deeply with young Jews wherever they are, design and lead programs that build and sustain lifelong, meaningful relationships.
The shlichut program has changed the scope of how Israel interacts with Jewish communities worldwide, making it a more personal relationship that focuses on the specific needs of local communities. Shlichim immerse in a local community’s life and learn first-hand about its people, assets and challenges. Guided by their knowledge and understanding of the community they teach and inform, they serve as living examples for a life lived in Israel.
When external challenges arise for Israel such as BDS or delegitimization on campus, these shlichim on are on the front lines of defending Israel’s image and empowering students to be proactive. And when internal challenges arise like the Kotel issue, these shlichim are the voice of Jewish communities in Israel, representing the relationship with the communities they serve. They inspire communities and are, in turn, inspired by them. When they return home, shlichim bring with them valuable insights about Jewish life outside of Israel, a perspective that helps them shape other Israelis’ perception about Jews around the world, and influences Israel’s future.
Shifts in the needs and desires of Jewish communities, the complexity of approaches to Israel as well as in the demographics of the shlichim themselves mean that the emissary program is due for an important update in the realm of content and training.
Under the leadership of Natan Sharansky, The Jewish Agency’s chairman of the executive since 2009, the global footprint of shlichim has not only grown exponentially — by 500 emissaries during the past five years alone, a 33 percent increase — but has also seen the average age of emissaries drop significantly. Shlichim today are about a decade younger (on average) than they were at the turn of the millennium.
At the same time, younger shlichim are less experienced and require more training than their older counterparts, both before embarking on and during their missions around the world. Responding to this changing landscape, The Jewish Agency is providing more comprehensive training that will enable the emissaries to master the art of serving local Jewish communities and to continuously grow their skill set while in the field. Our vehicle for providing enhanced training is The Shlichut Institute, a newly launched initiative with Sharansky as its founding chair. This is the crucial next step in the personal and professional mission of Sharansky, along with The Jewish Agency, to enrich Jewish life and connections to Israel throughout the Jewish world, and all the while connecting young Israelis to the Jewish world. [Sharansky is stepping down as chairman of the executive this year.]
We aren’t opening any sort of brick-and-mortar facility for this institute. Training will be dynamic and fluid, not stagnant. The Shlichut Institute is creating a sophisticated online community of practice in which emissaries are constantly connected and can be trained no matter where they are stationed, while also conducting training on-site in partnership with their communities. Previously, all shlichim were only centrally trained in Jerusalem and gathered annually in their geographical areas. The institute will utilize a flexible, ongoing training system while on the job, that can readily adapt to the needs of communities throughout the Jewish world.
The average age of shlichim is not the only important aspect of the emissary program that has changed over time. Feedback from shlichim and our decades-long partners have taught us that today’s Jewish communities, and especially today’s young Jews, need to be engaged with rather than preached to. World Jews no longer need or want Israeli shlichim to tell them how to be Jewish, how to connect to Israel or how to be Zionists. Today, the emissary community dynamic is all about relationship-building, based on our shared values and story. Shlichim now help open the door for Jews to choose their own identity and connection to Israel, rather than showing anyone “the light.
The Shlichut Institute will tighten our definition of what it means to be an Israeli emissary in the 21st century and cater to shlichim of all types and from all backgrounds. It will engage shlichim in three primary areas: creating a community of reflection and sharing of best practices, initiating and leading high level training, and developing content to facilitate deep personal growth and professional development. Training will encompass the full lifecycle of shlichim — before, during, and after service — and will prepare emissaries for the holistic nature of their work, which touches virtually every aspect of their lives and communities.
The Jewish Agency is adapting to the times by better equipping its emissaries for the shifting nature of their mission. Ultimately, we will not merely continue the progress that the shlichim have made to date. We will help write a vibrant new story for the Jewish future.
Shelley Kedar is the founding director of The Shlichut Institute.