Shlichut | שליחות
Like many undergraduates, I held down several jobs during my student days. During my senior year at Rutgers, one of those jobs was as advisor to the Young Judaea clubs of East Brunswick, New Jersey. For a few hundred dollars a month, as I recall, I oversaw three groups and attended several conventions during the year. As a Young Judaea graduate myself, the job was familiar territory and spoke to my continuing commitment to Zionism, Israel, and the Jewish people.
Among the remarkable people working for Young Judaea at that time was a shaliach by the name of Ari Marom. Shlichim (plural of shaliach or shlicha, the feminine form of the word) are emissaries who are trained and sent from Israel to be equal parts teacher, ombudsman, and friend to myriad kids, staff, and community members with whom they come in contact over the course of a shlichut (literally, a “mission”) that typically lasts between two and three years. Those years are spent far from home and as a time-out from career pursuits, but with a vitally important purpose: to bring Israel to life for Jews throughout the Diaspora.
Ari grew up in Canada but made aliyah after high school, serving in the IDF before earning a university degree in Jerusalem, and starting a family. He was smart, sarcastic (in an entertaining way), and funny as hell, and he was a proud and passionate Zionist. We hit it off, and though he was a good 10 years older than me, we became friends. Through his work with Young Judaea, he filled our hearts and minds with stories and insights about what was happening in Israel at that time. More importantly, he helped us know Israel a bit, by knowing him and his family. They made it tangible for us. They made it real.
As graduation approached, I got busy looking for work in banking, a precursor to my planned return to school for an MBA and a business career. Over coffee—or maybe it was after a basketball game—Ari encouraged me to put off my plans and instead use the time between degrees to work with him full time for Young Judaea. I initially dismissed the idea, but we talked some more, and after a while, I decided: “Why not?” I would need to work for a year or two before I would be accepted to a top MBA program, so I figured why shouldn’t I spend that time doing some good in the Jewish world. And that’s what I did.
Earlier this week, I took part in a memorable meeting. I spent time with a delegation of shlichim who work in JCCs. There are dozens of them. Shlichut has changed and evolved since back in the 1980s. Today, we have different kinds of shlichim. We have shinshinim | שינשינים | acronym for “year of service” [shlichim] who spend a gap year between high school and the army performing community service at North American JCCs. We have young shlichim who come here after the army to spend two to three years at the outset of their careers. And we have the Ari Marom-style shlichim, mid-career professionals who serve in a JCC or Federation or through one of the Jewish youth movements.
The young people with whom I met are extraordinary. Far from the familiar, in the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented political polarization, they’re charged with strengthening ties between Israel—which to many in our communities can be thought a complicated subject—and the people they work with here. And that’s exactly what they’re doing in places like Worcester, Massachusetts; Houston, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; Jacksonville, Florida; Toronto, Ontario; and Brooklyn, New York, among other communities. They work in our camps. They bring Israel to life in our pre-schools. They program holiday celebrations. They work with allied agencies—day schools, senior centers, and universities. It isn’t easy work. Particularly now. But they have a job to do, and they are unswerving in their determination to getting it done.
I imagine they’re making their mark—though not on everyone. I expect they encounter people who—owing to politics, religious conviction, or cultural orientation—have already made judgments about Israel. For these people, the issues of the moment have clouded their ability to understand the unbreakable bonds that bind us together as Jews and that Jewish sovereignty in the modern state of Israel separates this generation from the hundred that preceded us and our nearly 20 centuries of stateless wandering.
We spoke about such people and when and how to answer the hard questions. We talked about remaining steadfast in the face of critics and haters and about never losing sight of the ultimate goal: to connect American and Canadian Jews with the State of Israel in a personal way. It’s certainly about ideas and history, but it’s even more about relationships. To know Israelis is to know Israel. And to know a shaliach is to know an Israeli.
Our mishlachat | משלחת | delegation is led by Guy Sela, the shaliach merkazi | שליח מרכזי | central shaliach. He works out of JCC Association’s offices in New York and travels the continent to support and assist his team. Guy knows us pretty well already, having come to his current role after two years as the shaliach at the Lawrence Family JCC in San Diego and as a proud product of Maccabi World Union, our partner in the JCC Maccabi Games.
I’ve been reflecting on my time with the shlichim, and every time I do, I smile. They make me very proud, and they’ll have that effect on you as well. If there is one in your community, reach out to the shaliach. Open a door for Lirin, Noa, or Stav. Make an introduction for Eran, Patrik, or Roni. Invite Shay, Ofek, or Maayan for Shabbat dinner. And if there isn’t a shaliach in your midst, reach out to Guy. Maybe we can help find a way to get one to your JCC next year. You never know. It might change the course of someone’s life—like it did mine.
P.S. JCC Association extends thanks and congratulations to Rabbi Joy Levitt, who is retiring at the end of this month following an illustrious career as a pioneering JCC executive and community leader at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan in New York, New York. We wish her a wonderful next chapter.