By Stacey Dresner
Every August since 1999, groups of young people from the Afula-Gilboa region of Israel have arrived in Southern New England to share Israeli culture with local Jewish communities as part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether Young Emissaries program.
Sponsored by the Southern New England Consortium (SNEC) — made up of the Jewish Federations in Connecticut, Western and Central Massachusetts, and Rhode Island – these 18-year-old emissaries from Afula-Gilboa, SNEC’s sister region in Israel, delay military service in the Israeli Defense Service (IDF) for a year while they live with local host families and perform outreach in day schools, religious schools, youth groups, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, and nursing homes, strengthening the connection between Israel and the local Jewish communities.
But that connection was cut short in March when the 2019-2020 Young Emissaries were sent home three months early due to the spread of Covid-19.
By August, when the incoming 2020-2021 emissaries would have landed in New England, the program had been cancelled for the year.
“The process has already started for the selection of Young Emissaries for arrival in August 2021, but I think some communities have already been questioning whether that’s going to happen,” said Sharon Reisman Conway, coordinator of the Young Emissary program. “If I were to guess, I’d say we’re going to have another year on hiatus.”
But all is not lost. As everyone has learned, when activities can’t be held in person, the next best thing is Zoom.
On Friday, Nov. 13, several Young Emissary alumni from 2016-2017 put together a “mini-Kabbalat Shabbat” presentation on Zoom specifically for students at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge and Solomon Schechter in New London, as well as almost 100 individuals from other SNEC communities.
“They say the goal of the Young Emissary program is creating a living bridge between the two Jewish communities — Israeli Jewry and diaspora Jewry,” said Aviv Ziv, a 2016-2017 Young Emissary in Springfield, Mass., who participated in the Zoom program. “I think the Kabbalat Shabbat proved this bridge is still there, and it’s there to last.”
Conway said the idea to bring the emissaries back to their communities via Zoom was a natural.
“I think it was sort of a synthesis of everybody saying, what are we going to do? How do we keep this alive? Because this year we don’t have the personal connections that really is the magic of the program,” Conway said. “So we thought it would be great if we could come up with something that would at least give us some of that connection.”
Conway said there were two goals when planning to reconnect with the Young Emissaries.
“One was to see if we could develop a bank of videos of activities that would be available to various communities to use in their virtual Hebrew schools and virtual day schools, or even as a community interest program. And the hope was also to do live experiences. That was what we did last Friday with the mini-Kabbalat Shabbat,” she said.
Aviv Ziv and Guy Carmi, who served as a young emissary in Eastern Connecticut in 2016-2917, helped to coordinate the Zoom program on their end after Conway told them that the Young Emissary program had been cancelled this year.
“Aviv and I contacted the other emissaries and sent them a message on our WhatsApp group chat,” Carmi explained. “We explained to them the plan for the event and they were all excited to join. This was an amazing opportunity for all of us to reconnect with our communities. I wanted to do it because especially in a year like this, where the communities have no emissaries, it is so important to strengthen the ties between Israel and our friends from Connecticut.”
The group of former emissaries – all from 2016-2017 — sent videos showing how they celebrate Shabbat, some showing their families at the Shabbat dinner table, some singing songs and saying blessings.
The live Zoom presentation took place as Shabbat was set to begin in Israel; it was early afternoon in Connecticut so that day school students from Ezra Academy in Woodbridge and Solomon Schechter School in New London could participate.
“It was very nice,” Conway said. “We had a lot of community members who joined in and I think people felt it was a feel-good experience, both seeing everybody and kind of reminding ourselves that the connections are still very much alive… I got a lot of feedback from the Emissaries saying how meaningful it was for them to be reminded that the relationships still are very vital and connected.”
Where Are They Now?
Last March, when the last batch of emissaries was sent home early and the next group was cancelled, Marcia Reinhard, coordinator of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Conn.’s Young Emissaries came up with the idea for her past emissaries to write articles for the Federation’s Jewish Leader newspaper.
Liz Baker, the coordinator of the Central Mass. Young Emissaries, loved this “Where Are They Now” article idea and asked if she could do the same.
One way was through “Where Are They Now?” a series of articles the young Israelis wrote about their lives now, whether in the IDF, college or in their careers.
So far several Young Emissaries who have served Central Mass. have written articles, which have been sent out to the Central Mass. Jewish community in stand-alone emails from the Jewish Federation of Central Mass.
“When I came back to Israel, I knew that my role as an Emissary wasn’t over,” wrote Stav Attias, a 2017-2018 Young Emissary in Central Mass. in her article. “It was the time to share my American story with the Israelis and keep strengthening this strong connection.”
Attias wrote about her work in the IDF as a logistic commander working with “challenging recruits who are categorized as ‘at-risk youth.’”
“My experience abroad was always the focus of my conversations, whether I told my soldiers about the difficulties I had to overcome when I was alone in a new country, or when I found myself telling my colleagues about how it was to pray in Conservative and Reform synagogues in the Jewish community I lived in. It is very satisfying to hear that you have changed something about those people’s perspectives by making them understand Judaism in a different way.”
Others emissaries have preferred to Zoom.
A regular program now in Central Mass. is Café Israel, Sunday morning Zoom presentations by emissaries. A recent Café Israel featured 2016-2017 emissary Yoav Luxenbourg, who talked about his work in the IDF’s elite combat-canine unit – at least much as he could say about the secretive unit. On Dec. 13, 2010-2011 emissary Dror Ben Ami, who now attends the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, will lead Café Israel zoom conversation comparing childrearing in the U.S. and Israel.
Baker also solicited a Zoom presentation from Sahar Dayan, another past Central Mass. emissary, who gave eighth grade religious school students at Congregation B’nai Israel in Westborough a Zoom tour of the moshav where she was raised – and where her father grows oranges — then talked about her experience in the IDF training as a spokesperson for the Israeli Navy.
Tamar Melech, another Central Mass. emissary made a video of herself shopping in the market in Carmel for Shakshuka ingredients. She then demonstrates how to make the egg and tomato sauce dish in her own kitchen.
“It was fantastic,” Baker said. “She was in the Carmel shuk and I felt that you really get a great feeling for what the shuk is. She wasn’t just touring the shuk, she was buying groceries for a specific recipe. Then she went home and did the recipe very clearly. It was extremely well done.”
That video is now in the bank of videos available for any Hebrew or day school in any of the SNEC towns. “We have about 15 videos in the bank. We are trying to solicit more,” Conway said.
But soliciting past emissaries is not always easy, despite their enthusiasm. Some of them are now serving in the IDF and many are busy with demanding careers and families of their own.
“We have somebody who is working as a lawyer in the Israeli Supreme Court; we have doctors, architects, political organizers. I think the problem is they’re into it, but they’re all so busy,” Conway said.
To make things a little easier for the extremely busy emissaries, Conway, the coordinators and the emissaries are working on a Milat Hayon or Hebrew word of the Day program. Emissaries will make 30-second videos teaching a new word of the day, explaining it and using it in a sentence. Those videos will be available in January.
For now, as communities are deciding whether or not they will commit to the Young Emissary program for the year
2021-2022, these virtual programs will have to do.
Conway says while it is disappointing not to have the emissaries here in person, she realizes there are more pressing things to be concerned about.
“I think of things like hierarchy of needs,” she said. “I mean when we’re talking about people losing jobs or being worried about their personal health or their family’s health, it is kind of a luxury to be thinking about deepening our connections with Israel Although, in fact, I don’t think the Young Emissary program is any less important, given all that’s going on in the world and the concerns about rising anti-Semitism
Main Photo: Former Young Emissary in Fairfield, Conn. Noa Feldman takes a selfie of her family and neighbors sitting down to Shabbat dinner.