What Shlichim Do

by Yaacov Friedberg, outgoing Youth Shaliach for UJC’s Legow Family Israel Program Center

July 7, 2009

I am nearing the end of a two-year term as youth shaliach at MetroWest NJ.

From day one on the job, I introduce myself and then people ask a set of questions, the most popular being (in different variations): “You’re a shalich. So what do you do?” Now, depending on the amount of their existing knowledge of UJC MetroWest and/or the amount of enthusiasm for Israel on the part of the individual asking, that question means, “What do shlichim do,” “Why do we need shlichim,” and also, “Why are you doing this”?

Of course, I always loved being asked that question, because it gave me a great opportunity for making my pitch, together with a guarantee that I am being listened to. After all, I did not initiate the lecture, but was always happy to make it. Aren’t I here to represent? With time, I learned that I need to crystallize the answer, maybe shorten the lecture a bit, and I got better. Nevertheless, looking back in retrospect, I see that my answers not only got shorter, but always kept on changing. So, I am grateful for this opportunity to give a final pitch, based on accumulated thought and experience. As usual, I didn’t initiate. Thank you, Amir, for asking!

“You’re a shalich. So what do you do?”

For those unfamiliar with the term, a shaliach is an envoy from Israel who comes to serve in a local Jewish community for a set amount of time. I knew that I would be a shaliach at the age of 22, fresh out of the IDF, not that I exactly understood what it meant. It just seemed to be very natural to me. Somehow, the day I was discharged I found myself working for the Jewish Agency leading a bus of British Jewish teenagers touring Israel for a month. That experience started a series of activities in Israel and around the Jewish world in which, for the last 10 years, I did what shlichim do. I guess it was meant to be. Some say that shlichut is a bug, you get it and it stays with you.

And it is a fun and versatile job. In fact, I have a different job everyday. I am an Israel advocate; I teach, coordinate, and connect; I am a tour guide, community organizer, recruiter, and lecturer. In retrospect, if I try to find a common thread to tie together all of the numerous activities and programs that fill my days here, I would say that I am here to be a presenter, and that in the professional world of shlichut, one needs to be able to present the proper, tailor-made Israel for every group or individual encountered, so that it fits them. One day I can be presenting to a group of older adults on the challenges of the Ethiopian Israeli community and then recruiting a college student to a volunteer program in Israel, the next day promoting that Hebrew be added as a foreign language in public schools and then guiding a group of visiting Israeli teens on a Jewish heritage tour of the Lower East Side.

That answers “what I do as a shaliach,” but not why this is necessary or why I find it important. As I said, I just find it natural. I guess it all boils down to my personal and communal identity. When dealing with issues of identity (and shlichim do that all the time), I am usually tagged as a religious Zionist Israeli with American origins. That sounds like a mess, but in fact I always saw it as a gift.

I was born here and lived in Brooklyn up to age of seven. That was enough time for me to gain a knowledge of English, which saved me a lot of the trouble my friends in high school, and later at college, had struggling with English. At the same time, I moved to Israel at a young enough age to allow me to immerse myself in Israeli life and language, so that only very few super sharp Israelis can notice that I am not a true Sabra. But more significantly, I grew up with a constant feeling of connection with the Jewish community in the U.S. and with the ties it has to Israel. I always felt part of the Jewish people in the religious sense, and at the same time felt proud of being able to live in a modern Jewish public sphere in the State of Israel. Growing up in a modern orthodox Zionist community in Israel, I always felt that “Jewish” and “Israeli” are completely intertwined, essential components of any Jewish identity, wherever that Jew happens to live. I always felt that deep connection, and I guess that I see a great value in trying to spread that idea. So, that is my bug.

And with that bug, I set out to work here. One of the programs that I am proud of kicking off and leading during my shlichut is also all about identity: the Diller Teen Fellows, a teen leadership development program that every year brings together a group of 40 teens from Israel and the MetroWest area. Together, this very diverse group of teens explores what connects them. They perform community service here and in Israel and become a cohesive unit of young Jewish committed individuals blending Jewish values with a strong knowledge of and love for Israel. I feel proud of being involved in programs such as Diller, where the bug of shlichut comes in so handy. It is all about that ideal of connecting the Jewish people with their homeland in Israel. I never feel challenged by fact the that “Jewish” and “Israeli” are seen as representing such different values, for me they all fit into the larger picture just fine.

Israelis love playing Jewish Geography. Here, I learned that all Jews have that habit. During my first Shabbat in West Orange, I had one of those unbelievable “small Jewish world” moments. I walk into shul knowing practically nobody but a cousin of mine who lives in town. (Well, that cannot be considered unbelievable.) At Kiddush, I see a familiar face. I walk over to him and say: “Shalom, I know you. Your name is Zvi and we went to kindergarten in Manhattan Beach together 25 years ago.” Zvi looks at me and says, “Yes, I remember you are the twin, and you both moved to Israel at the end of second grade.” Later I learned that a third group of 1980 graduates lives in West Orange. We are all standing next to each other in the class picture — literally next to each other. Now, what is that if not a connection of the Jews here and in Israel? I just happen to live there, and they live here. But there are also two facts I have tried to support during my time here, and also back in Israel, when I am not on a “designated” shlichut. There is one Jewish people, and we need to connect as much as we can, based on our joint history, tradition, values, and destiny. And, we have one homeland we need to connect to and care for, and that is Israel.

By the way, Zvi always asks me, “So what do you do here?” So Zvi, this article is dedicated to you.

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