Stamford JCC welcomes new Community Shaliach

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD – Jewish Connecticut is home to a range of Israeli emissary programs that bring cultural “ambassadors” – “shlichim” in Hebrew – to communities and campuses as a way to educate about Israel and strengthen relationships between Israel and U.S. Jewry.

The Southern New England Consortium (SNEC) of Jewish Federations in Connecticut and Central Massachusetts, in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) hosts the Israeli Young Emissary Program, a year-long assignment between high school and IDF service. JAFI also partners with UConn and Yale in the Israel Fellows to Hillel program, which places Israeli young adults who have completed their IDF service on nearly 100 North American campuses. Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford hosts a pair of “Bnot Sherut Leumi,” young religiously observant Israeli women who volunteer for two years in an Israeli or diaspora community as an alternative to IDF service.

JAFI’s Community Shlichim program, which places young Israeli adults in Jewish communities throughout the world, partners with the Stamford Jewish Community Center (JCC) and the Mandell JCC in West Hartford to create a local “address” for all things Israel. The shlichim serve in their local communities for one to two years, working with local Jewish leadership to engage all age groups in a range of Jewish and Israeli cultural, educational, and social activities, and to encourage travel to Israel. The shlichim also represent Israel for the community at large.

Or Berger at a recent Stamford JCC event.

Or Berger at a recent Stamford JCC event.

The Stamford JCC just welcomed Or Berger, who joined the community as the fifth Israeli selected for the position. Berger is also working with Prof. Nehama Aschkenasy, director of the Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies at UConn Stamford, to establish a branch of Huskies4Israel, an advocacy group started at UConn’s Storrs campus. The Stamford initiative originated with Berger’s predecessor, Matan Samovsky, who served as the Stamford JCC Community Shaliach from 2013 to 2014.

Berger was born in Kfar Aharon, an Israeli village that he describes as “smaller than the average Target store, surrounded by an orchard.”

“I grew up in the heavenly sights and smells of fresh fruit trees,” he says. “When I was 5, we moved to Beersheva and replaced the orchard with what seemed like a never-ending desert.”

At 16, he graduated from Makif Alef, a performing arts school in the southern city, where he majored in literature and mass communications/radio. He worked for one of the country’s major radio stations as a head copywriter and voice actor until he entered the Israel Defense Forces, serving as a crime scene investigator for the military and the Israeli Police.

“I was discharged after three years on a Sunday morning,” he recalls. “By that Thursday I was already on a plane heading to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin to fill the position of head of radio programing. I was amazed by how close relationships can get in the short period of two months and could only imagine what can be done in a year or two. Two months later, by the end of my first American summer, I knew that I wanted not only to return to camp, but to look for a community to serve as a long-term shaliach.”

Since arriving in September, “I gained six pounds and doubled the number of Facebook friends,” Berger jokes. He has also initiated two monthly Israel-themed programs: “Speak Up for Israel,” the adult counterpart to the two-year-old advocacy-training initiative for college-bound teens (co-sponsored by United Jewish Federation), and a lunch-and-learn discussion group.

“The JCC is thrilled to have a year-round Israeli shaliach to not only enhance our JCC Israel programming but as a resource to the entire community,” says Nancy Schiffman, associate executive director of the JCC. “Or Berger has a wealth of knowledge regarding a variety of topics and is already scheduled to speak at many synagogues and Jewish organizations to both adult and youth audiences.”

Berger says that he is struck by the Jewish diversity in his adopted community. “There are secular Jews, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and everything in between,” he says. “Everyone seems to have a place. It’s marvelous.”

Upcoming Israel-related events at the Stamford JCC:

Speak Up for Israel for Adults with Or Berger
Monthly Mondays, 7-8:30 p.m.

Lunch and Learn with Or Berger
Monthly Thursdays, 12 noon-1 p.m.

Jewish Arts & Film Festival of Fairfield County
Saturday, Oct. 25-Sunday, Nov. 2

Tapestry: A Community Celebration of Jewish Learning
Saturday, Nov. 22, 6:30 p.m.
Berger will teach a session on refugees in Israel.

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