Emissaries During Coronavirus: Thanking the Gods of Zoom
Prayers instead of money, meeting for beer or just listening: Ohr Torah Stone’s Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum participated in a panel on shlichut at Makor Rishon’s “Am Olam” International Diaspora Conference, in which emissaries discussed how social distancing has changed their mission
By Riki Rath | 9 June, 2020
Just before the skies closed, Mizrachi emissary and Channel 12 journalist Sivan Rahav Meir and her family managed to return to Israel from the United States. After eight months abroad, Rahav Meir participated in Makor Rishon’s “Am Olam” International Diaspra Conference panel on shlichut and related that the positive change brought about by coronavirus enables her to reach many more communities: “If my lectures in the States were aimed at large congregations, I can now easily reach small communities, talk to them, and get to know them.”
Rahav Meir raises two questions stemming from her familiarity with American Jewry: The first is – why is it so expensive to be Jewish there? “To be an active Jew in the States, is to be a rich Jew,” she states. The second point pertains to the Jewish identity of the Israeli community in America. Rahav Meir spoke to many members of this community and she is concerned by the question of how their Israeli identity, often based on hummous and popular culture, can be augmented by a Jewish identity.
“I expected that in the State of Israel coronavirus would place the issue of Diaspora Jewry on the public agenda. Our brothers abroad may not need our money, but prayers – that doesn’t require much. Send them messages of love,” says Miriam Peretz, recipient of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement who frequently represents Israel in Jewish communities around the world.
“Coronavirus may have forced us to maintain social distancing,” says Peretz, “But it does not force us to distance emotionally. It was actually during coronavirus that I felt closer, but being an emissary requires a human touch, a voice, and eyes. I don’t feel comfortable with Zoom. Being an emissary today is different, everything is different, funerals as well as celebrations. Emissaries nowadays have more to cope with. They have to be very creative on Zoom to convey something personal, and to ensure that participants can feel emotionally close. On the other hand, Zoom enables us to reach many more people.”
Chani Lifshitz, Chabad emissary to Kathmandu, says she takes her mission to Nepal with her wherever she goes. “Emissaries are emissaries wherever we are, and right now we are emissaries here, because everything is magnified during coronavirus. Older singles are much more alone, as are people who have lost their partners. We set up a structure for Nepal Chabad House alumni, and we check to see who needs help. The mission does not end in Nepal. Beyond that I thank the ‘Gods of Zoom’ that enable me to lecture in a nice blouse and pajamas, and to reach everywhere. This period has brought me to the realization that the mission is not dependent on place or time.”
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel emissary training and placement programs, said it was actually coronavirus that caused many people to consider becoming emissaries. The deadly virus can serve as a turning point. “I define coronavirus not only as a global mega event, but as a Jewish mega event. Many Jewish communities around the world are closed, and in Israel the awareness of emissary missions is growing. I am not concerned about being able to find emissaries. The concerns are regarding countries that have shut their borders to foreigners, economic crises in various places in the world that will affect emissaries, and so on.”
At the start of the panel, Birnbaum had described his view of the emissary’s role: “The emissary’s goal is to serve as a bridge. Although emissaries make Jewish life more convenient, this is not their main role. The main role is to find the Jewish spark within every Jew. The vast majority of the Jewish nation is not religious, is not affiliated with a community, and is losing its Jewish identity. As far as we at Ohr Torah Stone are concerned, the goal is to reach every Jew, whether it’s through Kosher food, by going out for a beer with them, or by giving a dvar Torah.
“I feel that Zionism is a very wide term that encompasses more than the national aspect,” said Birnbaum. “The Jewish aspect has also become part of modern Zionism.”
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On of the Hartman Institute spoke during the panel about the importance of mutual impact – not only serving as emissaries, but adopting some things from Diaspora Jewry, such as pluralism and the ability to engage with Jews of other denominations. “Our mission is to make Israel the kind of place which not only sends Torah out to the world, but also receives it,” he said.