EYE ON EMISSARIES
Supporting ‘our’ Israelis
Israeli emissaries give Diaspora Jewish communities so much. Right now, they need us.
Two weeks ago, the three of us joined hundreds of thousands of Americans in Washington, D.C., to express our support of Israel. In the aftermath of Oct. 7, as the war with Hamas approaches the end of its second month, we must also critically reflect on what the Israelis in our communities need most and how we as North Americans can support those who have strengthened and supported us.
For the past 20 years, the three of us have worked together as national, congregational and summer camp leaders to deepen individual connections between Israelis and Americans. We understand that no amount of nuanced curriculum or immersive travel can replace the person-to-person connections that are developed in Jewish educational settings. Relationships have always been our starting place for Israel education.
In summer camps, congregations and other Jewish educational settings, Israeli shlichim (emissaries) transform Jewish education and deeply impact young Jews and their families. The connections with Israeli camp counselors and shinshinim (shlichim embedded in North American communities) extend far beyond their time of service, often including in-person visits and continued communication via social media, email or phone. Through these relationships, North American community members have opportunities to ask deep and honest questions about Israel, Israeli life and Diaspora Jewry. They engage in hard conversations, and get to know the personal experiences and life stories of the shlichim. These emissaries are trained to share generously of themselves, allowing their lives to be the textbooks from which others learn not only about them but about the history of Israel and the policies of their government. They do all this while serving as role models, fun-loving Hebrew teachers and cultural ambassadors.
Israelis who have made a home in North America also serve as an integral part of the Jewish educational infrastructure, in our congregations and other formal and informal settings. Hebrew instruction, Israel engagement and overall commitment to staffing and supporting Jewish early childhood, religious school and Israeli/Hebrew communal programs throughout the year rely on these Israelis living abroad. They share their personal and family connections to our holy land, and often make lifelong commitments to Jewish education in North America. They translate their life, experiences and “Israeliness” into educational content, learning and conversations. We are stronger and more deeply connected to Israel and the Hebrew language because of these teachers and leaders.
It is now our turn to repay their gifts by guiding our own communities to better understand their current experiences.
Israelis are continuing to experience direct trauma, secondary trauma and national trauma. Shlichim in North America need their North American colleagues to continue to extend them patience and grace, and former shlichim in Israel need the same. Israelis want to feel empathy and unconditional support, both as individuals and as a part of the broader Jewish community. We asked these individuals to share their lives like living textbooks — this is why they study and react personally to the social media posts and public statements from the North Americans in the communities they served. They taught our communities that we share the same values and the same core beliefs, and they were eager to learn about what it means to be Jewish outside the Land of Israel and Diaspora’s relationship with Israelis. We must now hold up our end of the covenant we made to be committed partners and community members, living our shared values.
While this work is challenging, we as leaders can take responsibility for the relationships we helped to create and the dialogue we fostered in our educational settings. When our former staffers in Israel share concern that North Americans (individually and institutionally) are not supporting Israel “loudly enough” online, we can help our families and leaders understand their point of view. We can encourage dialogue that is personal and direct; and we help to put social media into context for our staff and stakeholders. Even when we disagree about policy or politics, we can model doing so with compassion and love. We can also help everyone understand the differences between intent and impact, especially around social media.
The foundation of education at this moment can and should be our relationships. That personal trust and connection has always helped us listen and grow. It is the critical ingredient to bridge divides and create more compassion for Israelis as they share their truth. Jewish educators have the power to create this climate and transform the current pain into connection, no matter the distance between us.
Lisa David is the executive director of URJ Camp Harlam and URJ Camps Pipeline Strategy.
Rabbi Anat Levin-Katzir is the director of education at Kol Dorot, a Reform Jewish community in Oradell, N.J.
Rabbi Stacy Rigler is the executive director of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.