By Cindy Mindell
To twist a phrase from Francis Bacon, if the people can’t go to the land, the land will come to the people.
That is the motivation behind the Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) Shlichim program, a multi-pronged outreach effort that places Israeli emmisaries in diaspora communities to strengthen bonds with Israeli culture and society. [Shlichim is plural; singular: shaliach (male) and shlicha (female).]
In his 2013 book, The Educational Shaliach 1939-2009: A socio-history of a unique project in formal and informal Jewish education, Erik H. Cohen traces the origins of JAFI’s Shlichut program to 1939, when the agency mounted rescue efforts in Europe in the face of Nazi terror. After World War II, emissaries were dispatched to Jewish communities throughout the world to encourage aliyah. But in the wake of the Six Day War, JAFI revised its approach to Israel-diaspora relations and added an educational mission to its Shlichut program, sending some 4,000 emissaries to America and Europe to strengthen diaspora Jews’ ties to Israel, not necessarily to get them to leave the diaspora.
Today, JAFI’s shlichim range from ages 18 on up. They are placed at summer camps, JCCs, and college Hillels. Their mission is to bring Israel to Jews who may never set foot in the land itself.
Every year since 1998, a group of Israeli Young Emissaries have served in various Connecticut communities, co-sponsored by SNEC, the Southern New England Consortium of six Jewish Federations. In addition, for the last several years, post-army Israel Fellows have served at UConn and Yale, in collaboration with Hillel International, and as Young Shlichim at two JCCs, in collaboration with the JCC Association.
This year, in addition to the regular cohort of Israeli Young Emissaries in four Connecticut communities, the state welcomed four new post-army emissaries who will spend the next year (at least) bringing Israel closer to JCCs and college campuses.
HILLEL ISRAEL FELLOWS
Hillel International teamed up with The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) in 2003 to place Israel Fellows on more than 100 college campuses across North America. The Fellows are young professionals who have completed their service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and undergo an extensive application and training process. Two new Israel Fellows arrived at UConn and Yale this fall.
Rifkin grew up in the Beit HaKerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. She is the daughter of Bloomfield native and UConn graduate Lawrence D. Rifkin, who made aliyah in 1976 and is senior editor at The Jerusalem Post. Her mother, Avnit, grew up in Cordova, Argentina and made aliyah in 1972.
While serving in the IDF, Rifkin was an Eeducational non-commissioned officer in the Education and Youth Corps, responsible for the values education of soldiers and commanders as a way to increase motivation and morale.She then earned a BA in sociology-anthropology and archeology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. While there, she tutored with Perach, a national program that pairs underserved youth with university students who serve as tutors and role models. She was also an instructor at Havayeda Teva Center, a children’s science museum in Be’er Sheva, and worked as the university’s coordinator of internal communications.
“I’ve always loved Israel and enjoyed talking about it and sharing my own personal experience as an Israeli,” she says. “My hope is to bring myself and my own personal experience to my work as an Israel Fellow,” Rifkin says. “I’d like to share with the students the stories I’ve collected through the years while growing up and living in Israel. I’d like to take part in whatever the students take part in, even if it’s not Hillel-related. I’m here for them and see them as my friends.” Rifkin says that she is “extremely impressed and inspired” by the passion for Israel that some of the students express.
After her year-long shlichut, Rifkin plans to return to Israel and earn a master’s degree in urban development and planning.
Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale
Jerusalem native Yonatan Millo grew up in Ankara, Turkey and Rome, Italy as the son of Israeli ambassador Yehudah Millo, who died in 2003. The 29-year-old attended international schools and returned to Israel for high school, then served in the IDF intelligence unit for seven years, five of them as an officer. Millo graduated from the School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. There, he participated in a delegation of honor students to the Maxwell School of Public Diplomacy at Syracuse University and was part of the organizing staff of the annual week-long Media in Conflicts Seminar (MICS) for professional journalists dealing with media coverage of conflict areas.
A Birthright Excel alumnus and former David Project Fellow, Millo co-founded with his brother the NGO Israel for Africa, which teaches farming skills to youth in the Kibera slum of Nairobi using Israeli technology. He also started the IsraelDev Network with several international-development professionals, to advance international development in Israel. For the last two years, Millo has worked for the Yesh Atid political party in two national elections and one municipal election. In 2014, he was the director of the Olim Letavor program, preparing new immigrants and foreign volunteers about to be drafted as Lone Soldiers in the IDF.
Millo considers JAFI’s shlichut programs as another way to give back to his country – and he sees Yale students as requiring “a very intricate and delicate approach to Israel.”
“I don’t think you can be in an ‘in your face’ position, where I’ll show you everything that looks good and you’re going to believe me,” he explains. “You have to have somebody who has a lot of different experiences in Israel, and who can provide experiences for the students. I grew up abroad, in an international community. Therefore, just as Israeli as I am – I served in the army and I’m an officer and I serve in the reserves and I salute the flag and I’m a proud Zionist – I am also very much aware of what it means to be a diaspora Jew. Because of that, I bring with me a lot of the complexity that needs to be talked about when you talk about Israel.”
Millo serves as the main advisor to the five different Israel-related groups on campus. He helps to facilitate Israel-themed events on campus and connects students to programs in Israel and Israel-related programs and conferences in the U.S. Millo says that he tries to offer a range of activities, from the very political to the cultural, to show the many facets of Israel.
“These are students with opinions and we usually see that that leads to interesting discussions,” he says. “Of course, there are the political and conflict-related things that have to do with Israel, and they’re important to talk about and not try to hide under the carpet. I try to not make it a political statement either way but to have a dialog about these things.”
JCC ASSOCIATION YOUNG SHLICHIM
The Areivim-Young Shlichim Unit of the Jewish Agency for Israel sends young, idealistic and dedicated Israelis between 21 and 30 years old who have completed their military service to work in Jewish communities throughout the world. Young Shlichim are currently placed at JCCs in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, California, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Connecticut is home to three JCC-based shlichim. Or Berger is in his second year at the Stamford JCC; the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford welcomed a new shlicha this year. JCC Greenwich, which had participated for the last nine years in the Israeli Young Emissary Program, co-sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel, switched to the Young Shlichim program this year.
Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford
The child of an American mother and an Israeli father, Michal Abramoff was born in New York City and grew up from age two in Tel Aviv, the second of four children. There, the 24-year-old attended art schools. After completing her military service, Abramoff took part in a Jewish Agency for Israel summer shlichut program that placed her at Camp Pembroke in Pembroke, Mass. She then earned a BA in Psychology, Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. She learned about the Areivim-Young Shlichim Unit through updates from JAFI.
“I decided to apply because I am very passionate about modern Judaism and helping others explore their Jewish identity through a variety of ways, including Israel,” Abramoff says. “I hope to bring to the community a different outlook on Israel. We hear so much about war and violence on one hand, and on the other hand we talk about Israel as the Holy Land and its religious aspects. I would like to bring to the community the different Israel, which has a unique culture and identity that combines Jewish religion and Jewish history and tradition with everyday life in ways you wouldn’t think of.”
As a shlicha, Abramoff works with all age groups at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford. She participates in regular programs and hosts a variety of Shabbat, holiday, and Israel activities, including special events for the local Israeli community. Abramoff also plans to help revive the JCC’s Israel Festival in May. Outside the JCC, she works closely with the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s Israeli Young Emissaries; teaches classes at JTConnect and Hebrew High School of New England; and collaborates with Moishe House and University of Hartford Hillel, among other community organizations.
“When I arrived in Hartford, I was welcomed into a loving and caring community enriched with vast traditions, diversity, and activities,” she says. “I feel like the Jewish community in Greater Hartford is so active and large that I think my greatest challenge will be getting to know everyone and reaching out to all the different parts of the community.”
Born in Jerusalem, Avihu Rachamim, 25, grew up in Mevaseret Zion, a Jerusalem suburb. He has been working with kids and teens from a young age in a variety of settings. As a teen, he was selected for the Madrichei Shelach Tzeirim, a young leadership program of the Ministry of Education’s Shelach program, which works to strengthen young people’s sense of belonging to the State of Israel and the land.
He attended the IDF Junior Command Preparatory School in Haifa, where he continued to work with youth. After serving as a tank commander in the IDF, he studied to be a spinning and cycling instructor at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports in Netanya and led an IDF orientation program for at-risk youth and North American Jewish youth. He then earned a BA in education and special education at Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel.
“Shlichut grew up in me and it’s what I do best, it’s something that I wanted to do for a long time,” Rachamim says. “I believe in Israel and the values of Zionism and I want to outsource all my knowledge and all my experience. I am excited to bring my experience and represent ‘my Israel’ in the Greenwich community.”
In addition to being a devoté of cycling and scuba-diving, Rachamim also loves other sports, as well as singing and a wide range of musical genres – all of which he uses to connect the Greenwich community to Israel. Outside his JCC Greenwich role, Rachamim runs the Israel elective at Carmel Academy in Greenwich, teaching kids about Israeli culture and Jewish holidays, and is the facilitator of the Greenwich High School Israel Club. Rachamim plans to help organize the UJA and JCC Greenwich community observance of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day) in the spring.
“Growing up, these were the main days in my life because my father died in the army when I was not quite six weeks old,” he says. “So, they are very important for me and it is one of my biggest goals to contribute to the community’s observance here.”