By Guy Sela
Last month all the shlichim who are working at JCCs, synagogues, day schools, and other Jewish settings in the United States met for the annual shlichim and supervisors conference in Stamford, Connecticut. I was thrilled to see the young shlichim and learn what fantastic jobs they are doing to change how people see Israel these days. It was especially great seeing the personal growth they all went through in only one year.
Let me back up, though, and start from the beginning.
First, what is a shaliach? A shaliach (shlicha is the feminine form) is an Israeli emissary, who after completing service in the army, comes to a Jewish community to increase and improve the community’s connection with Israel. The variety of tools available to shlichim is endless, but their personality and background are the most important.
As Israelis the shlichim can connect the community to Israel; teach about Israeli culture, Judaism, and Hebrew; and humanize Israel just by being themselves. In this role, shlichim are at the center of the daily connection between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
JCCs in North America are hosting nearly two dozen shlichim who stand at the forefront of the work to improve communities’ connections to Israel. The impact each of them has in the places they serve—preschools, summer camps, synagogues, and elsewhere—is immense. Through their work, shlichim change the lives of hundreds of people by helping them see a different country than the one they read about in the newspaper or on the internet or see on television.
Throughout the year, JCC Association of North America supports the shlichim in all sorts of ways, starting from the initial interviews to monthly sessions when we as a group come together to prepare for what’s coming up, whether it’s Yom HaZikaron, the summer camp season, or, with the help of the Sheva Center, supporting the shlichim who work with early childhood centers. The monthly meetings of our delegation of JCC shlichim are about more than professional development. They are also a safe space for the shlichim to share their experiences, talk about their struggles, and brainstorm ways we can collaborate and bring together the strengths we have has a group.
The annual shlichim and supervisors conference is an amazing experience, and this year, it was exceptional. A lot of that was because of the lack of in-person, face-to-face gatherings in the past two years. The other part was that hearing my fellow shlichim speak about their successes and challenges and what a huge difference they can make with only their personalities and their knowledge gave me goosebumps.
Throughout the conference, we learned a lot about the changing landscape of the Jewish world in North America, where we are heading, and how we should evolve in our work. We also talked a lot about the war in Ukraine, the ethical duty that Israel has, and how much we miss having Turkish coffee—a rare thing—when we’re in America.
In between sharing best practices, I also heard about the difficulties we, the shlichim, have—and there are a lot of commonalities. For example, people see Israel as a political problem and nothing more, or they hear about either the terrible things or the pink-washed Israel, but not about the true, beautiful Israel. Our work is a two-way street that we are paving daily, part of a 74-year-old long road, so of course, there are different opinions, but we need to rise above them. We don’t all see eye to eye about the ways of the Jewish homeland, but we all want to better our country and strengthen the relationship between North America Jewry and Israel—and we have a remarkable group of young Israelis who are working nonstop to help their communities do just that.
I want to thank Leah Garber, vice president, Israel engagement and director of JCC Association’s Center for Israel Engagement, for standing with me and our shlichim. I am fortunate to be working beside her, learning from her, and, together, creating what we believe Israel engagement should look like. I’m also grateful to the entire staff of the Jewish Agency for Israel for facilitating this amazing conference for all. As always, it’s a pleasure to work with them and learn about the amazing work they do all over the world. To all the remarkable supervisors who are much more than supervisors to our shlichim, thank you for being wonderful mentors, friends, families, and more. Lastly, to our incredible shlichim: Thank you for all the hard work you are doing daily, for choosing to make a difference, and for seeing the importance and value of the shlichut program. Most of all, thank you for always being here.
I am proud of all of them, and you should be, too!
Guy Sela is the shaliach for JCC Association of North America and Maccabi World Union.