Each summer the Jewish Agency for Israel sends hundreds of shlichim, or emissaries, to Jewish camps throughout the U.S. Their dual goal is to bring the spirit and reality of Israel to youngsters here, and to deepen the relationship between young American and Israeli Jews.
With the war in Gaza raging, though, this summer was particularly difficult for the shlichim, most of whom have recently served in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I felt hopeless being so far away,” explained Ofir, a resident of Beit Shemesh who worked at a 92nd Street Y day camp for Russian-speaking children.
He and the six other shlichim at a roundtable discussion I participated in last Friday morning emphasized the stress of feeling torn between their personal concerns for family and friends back home — some serving in Gaza — and their responsibility to provide positive experiences for their young charges at camp. But they agreed that, to their surprise, they came away with a deep appreciation of how much their campers and staff peers cared about, and connected to, Israel.
In all some 160 shlichim took part in a session marking the culmination of a three-day, end of summer seminar sponsored by the Jewish Agency and UJA-Federation of New York called “Bringing It Home.” Expanding on a small pilot program begun a year ago, it was designed to help the attendees meet, share stories and process their experiences as Israelis in a new environment; it was one that exposed them to a diverse community with a wide range of religious and cultural expressions.
The sponsors hope the shlichim will return to Israel with an interest in becoming active in areas of social justice, with a deeper, global perspective on Jewish peoplehood.
“You are the bridge builders,” Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation, told the group. “You will play a critical role in forging lasting connections between Israeli and diaspora Jews,” he said, noting that, having spent the summer in the U.S., the shlichim have a better understanding than most Israelis about “the significant differences” between the two cultures.
Later, in an interview, Alan Hoffman, the director-general of the Jewish Agency, looked out at the participants, buzzing in conversation, and said proudly: “These are our future leaders.”
Hoffman said that the three days of intense dialogue, combined with visits to Jewish sites in New York and conversations with local leaders, confirmed for him the importance of the seminar. His conclusion was underscored by comments like those of Nick, a young Israeli who was on staff at a local camp for Russian-speaking Jews. He told our group how difficult it was for him last summer when, at the end of his stint at a camp in the U.S., “we just cleaned out our bunks and went home.” He said he very much appreciated this year’s seminar and the chance to focus on and compare his experience with others before returning to Israel.
The Jewish Agency has been providing shlichim to the U.S. for more than 46 years, with service ranging from post-high school teens who live with American families for a year and volunteer in schools and community centers, to senior shlichim, usually in their 30s, who come with a family and serve federations or JCCs in helping to connect young Americans to their homeland. There are also shlichim working on college campuses through Hillel, and youth movement-affiliated shlichim, in addition to the short-term summer camp service program. The summer shlichim are selected from about 7,000 applicants to be the face of Israel, English-speakers who are high achievers with an interest in the worldwide Jewish community.
Of the 225 summer shlichim in about 30 participating New York area camps, 160 volunteered to take part in this first large-scale seminar, held at UJA-Federation.
A highlight of the Friday morning roundtable program was a guided discussion, with a facilitator at each table of about 10 people asking the participants — made up of shlichim and UJAF professionals and lay leaders — to describe their feelings about the place in Israel that is most dear to them, and the place most challenging.
While the places most dear to the shlichim at my table varied from Jerusalem to the Judean desert to the Golan Heights, the most discomfort was attributed to areas where different elements of society clashed. They cited rifts between the religious and the secular in Jerusalem, disagreements over the value and policy of the settlements, and Arab-Israeli tensions in Nazareth.
What struck me was that their descriptions of specific local pressures underscored the larger problem Israel faces: a lack of space — namely, a small bit of land fought over by so many with conflicting, passionate claims.
Clearly it was the war in Gaza that galvanized their attention this summer, as well as the seemingly irrational and often-virulent criticism expressed by those who view Israel as the callous aggressor in a war it did not seek.
While the shlichim at my table expressed gratitude for the support they received from campers and staff members they encountered, Aviva Zeltzer-Zubida, chief strategy officer of the Jewish Agency, explained that in a lengthy private session the previous day, the Israelis shared reactions from camp personnel that “ran the gamut” of emotions. Many of the Americans expressed deep empathy for the Israelis, while others were critical of Israel’s perceived over-reaction in bombing Gaza, they reported, putting the emissaries on the defensive. Some said the Americans simply did not want to hear about the feelings of the shlichim.
At the closing comments at the Friday session, Adi, a young woman who served at the Ramah Berkshires camp, said she felt good about bringing a bit of Israel to her charges, stressing the need to educate American Jews about their ancestral homeland. And Irina, who was also at Ramah Berkshires, said that coming from a family that is not religious, “it was special for me to feel more connected to the prayers and rituals. I felt more Jewish than I feel at home. And it makes me happy that I will bring what I learned home with me.”
Surely the more programs that can bring American and Israeli Jews together in ways that allow them to learn about each other can only strengthen a feeling of mutual responsibility, bringing us closer to the goal of Clal Yisrael, one people.