Returning Emissaries: “Our mission has not ended”
Eleven emissary families who recently returned from Jewish communities in the Diaspora met last week to reflect upon the happy moments, the times of crisis and difficulty, and also the moments which gave them satisfaction.
Some had been in the Diaspora for five years; others for two. Some had been schoolteachers, while others were campus or community rabbis. Some served in Europe or Asia, and others in the Americas. But now, eleven families which had been sent on shlichut by Ohr Torah Stone’s emissary training programs have returned home to Israel. Several of the couples met this week in Gush Etzion to discuss their experiences over the past few years, the challenges they faced and the feelings that have remained with them.
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel training programs for emissary educators and rabbis, respectively, spoke at the beginning of the evening: “As shlichim, there is value in departing and value in returning. Being an emissary is itself a journey; a journey in which the person who sets out is not the same person upon their return. Similarly, the people you met while in the field also grew and changed because of your role. This year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Straus-Amiel’s founding and we are very excited that you have also taken part in our journey.”
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, President of the Ohr Torah Stone network, shared with the group: “A few weeks ago I made Aliyah from the United States. I know the communities in the Diaspora and I am aware of the significance of having Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel emissaries there. Your DNA is now implanted in the communities that you served through the hundreds of activities that you ran, large and small, and the myriad efforts you made, all of which will remain there forever. Now that you have returned to Israel, we know that the insights you gathered there will be reflected in your work here and in the wondrous contributions that you will make to Israeli society.”
The OTS emissaries at the gathering had returned from New Jersey, Champaign, Brooklyn and Chicago in the United States; Toronto, Canada; Leeds, England; and Montevideo, Uruguay. They were very excited to reunite, reminisce and reflect – one of the emissaries even arrived directly from the hospital, after the birth of his son.
“All of a sudden, you arrive at a community and discover a lot of openness toward people,” shared Avital, who had been in New Jersey. “You see people’s inner selves; you don’t categorize them based on the stream they belong to or their level of religious observance. They are simply Jews.”
Yisrael, who returned from Toronto, said: “There are many bonuses in being an emissary. But you also encounter many difficulties along the way and sometimes you ask yourself what on earth you are doing here. And then, all of a sudden, a member of the community will ask you a question, or you’re standing smack in the middle of an activity, and it hits you. You understand why you are there, why you came. These feelings you experience are difficult to put into words.”
The shlichim also spoke openly about the impact emissary work has upon them as a couple and as a family. “Being an emissary is a challenge to the marriage,” said Chaim. “You and your spouse work intensively, side-by-side, both at home and at work. But it also strengthens the marriage tremendously. I discovered things about my wife that I hadn’t known before and which only came out while we were serving as emissaries: how she stands up before people, that she is a born teacher and the amazing strengths she has.”
Over the years, the emissaries also encountered anti-Semitic incidents. David, who served as a campus rabbis related: “On campus in the United States there are plenty of opinions about the State of Israel, a lot of hatred but above all, a lot of confusion. There is still plenty of work to be done; we need to do more public diplomacy and PR, we need to build a relationship with Israel and show what Judaism is,” he said. “The students do not see enough of this.”
The emissaries repeatedly stressed the importance of the preparation and training they received from Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel. “I can divide my life into before-shlichut and after-shlichut,” said one. “Preparation for being an emissary is most important. We received so much and without it I do not believe we could have taken up the position and live there as we did. The preparatory working groups, the encouragement and the ongoing support we received while there were so meaningful.”
David summed up: “I have a very strong feeling about the fact that I have returned to Israel while there are still so many Jews there. Being an emissary really needs to be a long-term undertaking, not just of one couple or ten, but of the entire Jewish people. Our mission has not ended.”
Summing up the evening, Rabbi Birnbaum agreed: “Being an emissary is not a job for years; it is a job for life.”