On a mission

Yearning for Israel, Jewish Agency emissaries find community in America

Shlichim say being away from home is challenging and emotionally fraught, but are convinced of the need to serve as a bridge between U.S. Jewish communities and the Jewish state

When Aya, a Jewish Agency for Israel emissary, moved from a kibbutz near the Gaza border to a city in the American South with her husband and three children in August to help tell Israel’s story, she knew she was facing a heavy lift.

Then Oct. 7 happened.

“I spoke to myself and tried to prepare myself for an event like this,” Aya told eJP,  knowing that she might face unfair criticism of her home country as well as antisemitism. “But this is my worst nightmare times a million. I did not, I could not imagine something like this.”

The job of a Jewish Agency emissary, or shaliach, a kind-of Israeli cultural ambassador in Jewish communities around the world, is challenging at any time. But last month’s Hamas massacre has added a new, and emotionally fraught, element to the job.

“This is not what they signed up for,” Neta Katz Epstein, chief program officer of the Jewish Agency’s North American delegation, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Among all 363 [American] shlichim, everyone knows someone who was either murdered, kidnapped or injured.”

But even as they mourn, the role of these emissaries — the face of Israel in schools, synagogues, JCCs, federations, camps and colleges — has changed drastically. In the wake of Oct. 7, they are bridges to a wounded, struggling country at war. Many said they gained a new sense of community, comforting and guiding American Jews at a delicate moment and also being themselves supported by those American Jewish communities.

Like many shlichim, Aya says she carries guilt. Prior to her service, she lived and worked as a teacher in Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, which was infiltrated by Hamas terrorists. She personally knows 10 people who were murdered and 22 who are being held hostage, including eight children, one of which is an 11-year-old former student of hers. (Aya and all of the other emissaries interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by their first names.)

Days after the massacre, Aya was on TV and at vigils, holding back tears, speaking about the brutality inflicted on her kibbutz. She told one TV station, sobbing, “I’m so sorry I’m not there. I’m so sorry there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry for being grateful that my kids are OK.”

But she acknowledges that being in America also gives her the opportunity to help her community back home. “It’s been very challenging, but also very humbling,” she said. “And it’s given me opportunities to convey a message and tell a story that I could absolutely not be able to tell if I was in Israel right now.”

Since Oct. 7 and the ensuing war with Hamas, shlichim have been expected to educate their communities and help them grieve, a difficult task when you are in mourning yourself. To support the emissaries, the Jewish Agency provides them with curriculum tailored to their communities, access to experts to teach them and their community and increased mental health services, offering Hebrew-speaking social workers and psychologists to provide them with individual and group therapy.

But one of the best ways shlichim have been supporting each other is by attending informal gatherings, such as hiking, bowling or volunteering together, said Katz Epstein. “[They] sing together, cry together, laugh together, pray together, learn from each other, and this is what we know that they need right now, more than ever.”

Although a handful of shlichim were called up for reserve duty, most have not returned to Israel since the attacks. Even those who went home for funerals came back soon after.

“I’m a captain in the reserves and when October 7 happened, my first inclination was to take the first flight back to Israel,” Or, a 30-year-old campus fellow serving on the West Coast, told eJP. “But my commander knows what I’m doing here, and he told me, ‘Listen, Or, we need you on campus.’”

Or’s journey to become a shaliach began with that same commander. In Tel Aviv, Or was a lawyer who owned a company that teaches public speaking skills. His commander recognized these skills could benefit American college students who are faced with increasing antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

Since the massacre, students have told Or, “It’s the first time in our lives that we feel scared like we don’t know what to do.” He helped them find their voice.

College fellows, like Or, have been teaching students how to stay safe while being proudly Jewish and pro-Israel. Emissaries teach students how to formally file complaints if they witness antisemitism.

“A lot of students want to take action want to do something, and the fellow is the one helping them take that motivation and turn it into action,” Nati Szczupak, the Jewish Agency’s central shlicha to Hillel International and director of the Israel Fellows Program, told eJP. “It could be making plans to volunteer for different causes in Israel during winter break or summer break. It can be fundraising for different causes in Israel. It can be writing letters of support to Israeli children who are displaced.”

Last week, Or witnessed 160 students speak before his school’s student government about the importance of passing a resolution against antisemitism. “To see them speak up against the evil,” he said. “I’m so proud of them.”

Much of what emissaries are doing is simply allowing their communities to mourn. It’s comforting for the shlichim to realize that American Jews are in this together with Israelis, especially after years of feeling increasingly distanced from American Jewry.

“There’s something about feeling the same thing together that shows the strength of the Jewish people,” Szczupak said. “People in Israel are suffering, and tears are shed all over the world for them in Jewish communities, and I think that’s really powerful.”

Today, Israelis and American Jews are “connecting and finding the common ground,” Katz Epstein said. “Shlichim [are] the bridge.”

The Israel that the shlichim left behind is not the Israel they will return to. “Where I live is a warzone,” Aya, whose community was evacuated, said. “It’s sealed off. We can’t go back there. And no one is going to be able to go back there for probably at least a year. So, at the moment, my home is physically there, but it’s unapproachable.”

She misses her friends and family, but knows she is doing what she can for them.

“They need me to make sure that people don’t forget. They need me to make sure that people understand what happened. They need me to make sure people understand Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak is not just a name, it’s a community of almost 700 people who are going through hell, no less,” she said. 

“I definitely want to be with my people. I really do. But I also have another new people. I’m a part of a community, an amazing community that has been supporting me and my family through all this… As much as it’s hard and it’s painful, I think that it’s a true honor and blessing to be doing this.”