Consider it a charm offensive.
For the past six weeks, a disarmingly friendly young Israeli with a distinctive accent has been steadily introducing himself to college students, teens, schools, JCCs, synagogue communities and others here in Westchester, in his role as the county’s first community shaliach, or emissary.
“My mandate is to bring anyone and everyone one step closer to Israel,” said Yoav Cohen, 28, who will be serving in Westchester for the next two years.
For many non-Orthodox American Jews, or those not in the day-school world, Israel simply isn’t on their radar (unless a particular political issue surfaces), or is thought of as a distant third-cousin, once removed.
Bringing Cohen into Westchester as part of an effort to change those attitudes was the mission of the Rosenthal JCC, along with the Westchester Jewish Council, which launched this initiative earlier this year. That proposal stated, “The goal of this initiative is to better connect our Westchester Jewish community to Israel, in line with the belief that ‘no matter where we stand, we stand with Israel.’”
As Ellie Aronowitz, executive director of the Rosenthal JCC, which serves as Cohen’s home-base office, said, “The power and potential of this program is to educate people about our mutual Jewish responsibility and to help instill values and pride.”
It’s not to suggest that Cohen is here to sugarcoat uncomfortable Middle Eastern realities. Cohen’s assignment definitely includes “a struggle with issues, and raising hard questions, so that the dialogue stays alive,” said Aronowitz.
Cohen was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa; when he was 12, his family made aliyah, where he served four years in the IDF with a Border Guards unit.
After his army tour, “I wanted to “serve Israel and the Jewish people,” said Cohen. In Israel, he has run study tours and programs in leadership and diplomacy, experience that’s poised him well for his current posting. He also volunteered at a JCC in Indianapolis.
Cohen’s portfolio includes meeting with Israeli-centered groups in the county; encouraging travel to Israel for adults, families and children; working with youth groups; coordinating Israeli cultural programs; visiting day schools and after-school synagogue programs, and essentially being the recognizable face of the country to Westchester’s Jewish population
Although Cohen is Modern Orthodox, “he understands the importance of inclusivity and the diversity of the Jewish community, particularly here in Westchester and Northern Westchester,” said Aronowitz.
During a casual visit to the SUNY/Purchase Hillel, Cohen chatted easily with the students relaxing in the lounge. Hannah Salzberg, a junior who is president of the Purchase Hillel, was definitely delighted to have “a real live Israeli guy” available to meet informally with students. Cohen has already hosted 10 students, through Hillel, at his apartment for a Friday night Shabbat dinner, following services at Temple Israel Center in White Plains.
“In defining Yoav’s job, we came to the realization that he should be on campus two to three times a month,” said Saul Spangenberg, executive director of the Hillels in Westchester.
The initiative is coordinated by the Rosenthal JCC and the Westchester Jewish Council and is funded by UJA-Federation of New York with additional financial support from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), as well as Carol and Michael Lowenstein, the Adnim Foundation and the Nedivot Venture Philanthropy Fund of UJA-Federation. Hillels of Westchester is another partner.