On the Map: Shlichim who have it in their DNA
A family affair: Can going on shlichut be genetic? As it happens, quite a few shlichim express an interest in this area after their parents/siblings or even in-laws were shlichim in the Diaspora themselves. How do you manage when your family is scattered across the globe? And are local Jewish communities even interested in Yiddishkeit any more, or considering making Aliyah at all? Shlichim share their stories.
Liat Shukrun, 15/02/2022
When the Toybers came to Sao Paulo, Brazil on shlichut two years ago, there were five of them. Now there are six; their fourth child was born in Brazil, with their families far away, and no one around to stay with the other children while they raced to the delivery room… A short while after the kids had gone to bed, the contractions grew stronger, the parents asked a babysitter to come over, and two hours later, father Bentzi – now a father of four – was back home, to take over from the babysitter.
“God was on our side, we had siyata dishmaya“, he believes. “Hashem has really been with is, it’s something you feel on shlichut all the time”.
This isn’t Bentzi’s first time on shlichut. When he was in first grade, he was on shlichut with his family in Antwerp, Belgium. His father was the head of the Mizrahi congregation there at Yavneh School, an experience he remembers to this day as being extremely special: “Aside from the fun I had there, sight-seeing and experiencing all sorts of things, I remember there being a special feeling, a feeling that we, as a family, were doing something very important; we had purpose, we were contributing and giving all we could. It’s a very strong experience for a child to feel like they’re part of something big”.
It was this feeling that prompted a desire that he harbored for many years, to go on shlichut himself with the family he’d build. And when it finally happened – no one was taken by surprise. It seems his brother had caught the same bug; he, like Bentzi, is a shaliach of the Straus-Amiel Emissary Institute, serving as a Rosh Kollel in Venezuela, where his wife teaches at the local Jewish school.
Bentzi shares: “It was hard for us to leave Israel and our family, and it’s not easy for our parents to be far away from us and their grandchildren, so when my brother announced that he was also going on shlichut, my parents found it very difficult; after all, two of their children were flying to the other side of the world for a long period of time. But, having been emissaries themselves, my parents understand the importance of this sense of mission, and know that if it’s something that burns within you, in your heart, you should let yourself express it. So they accepted it despite the difficulty – and for that I applaud them”.
Dangerous – Not only for Jews
The Toybers were trained as emissaries to the Diaspora by the Straus-Amiel Emissary Institute, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network. They currently serve as WZO shlichim at Beit Yaakov School, where they teach Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and which their own children attend, as well as World Bnei Akiva shlichim to Sao Paulo.
Some religious emissaries find it hard to see their children integrating into the local community when that community is not Orthodox, for example, but the community in which the Toybers live places Jewish values on a pedestal. There are synagogues; the school, attended by over 1,000 students from daycare to twelfth grade, is considered excellent; and it’s not too complicated to keep Shabbat and eat kosher, because, as Bentzi describes it: “It’s very convenient to live in Sao Paulo as a Jew; there’s an eiruv, all kinds of kashrut, and synagogues catering to the various denominations. Jewish life is very strong and rich here, and everyone attributes importance to Jewish identity in some way. We belong to the Beit Yaakob Safra Congregation, the top priority of which is not to assimilate. It also attributes great importance to Hebrew and Jewish studies, although not all families are necessarily religious.
“We’ve come to a large community with very good, warm people who all live in peace and respect one another; secular, religious, Chabadniks, Satmar Hassidim, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. They each have their own shul but it’s wonderful to see how connected they are. There are many Jews here, with a vast and thriving Judaism, and shlichim have their hands full here”.
How does the Jewish community experience the local community?
Bentzi: “In terms of security, Brazil is dangerous; there is a lot of crime in this country, and you need to be careful on the streets, and really keep your eyes open. But most Brazilians are very good, and there are rarely any antisemitic incidents”.
Finding it hard to leave
So, what’s the aim of overseas shlichut in 2022? Aliyah is no longer the main issue, and when assimilation in the Diaspora has become the enemy of the Jewish People – strengthening the Jewish identity of Diaspora Jews has become an urgent matter.
Bentzi says the vast majority of the Jewish community in Sao Paulo was born and raised in Brazil, and most local Jews are wealthy. Add to that the fact that they run a rich and fearless Jewish life there, and you could easily understand why the Jews of Sao Paulo find it hard to leave everything behind and make Aliyah.
“Everyone here is very connected to Israel, and seek the connection to Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel, it comes naturally to them, but not all of them make Aliyah, because it isn’t easy. The issue isn’t to talk Aliyah all the time, but it’s there in everything we do – in Hebrew studies, Jewish studies, Zionism, and connecting it all to what is happening in Israel all the time. I do believe that a shaliach should come with the clear statement of wanting Jews to come to Eretz Yisrael, and when we teach Hebrew at the schools, it is perhaps the most significant tool we can give Jews in terms of making Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, and, obviously, Hebrew connects them to their Jewish identity.
“We teach them about Judaism, Jewish holidays and so on, maintaining Diaspora Jews’ ties to Israel. In general, the very presence of a shaliach coming to an overseas community with all that they bring with them from Israel is very meaningful, both in terms of the connection between Diaspora Jews and Eretz Yisrael, and in terms of strengthening Jewish identity and reducing assimilation, because it’s all too easy to fit in and get integrated there, and forget your Jewish identity”.
In their brother’s(‘) footsteps
Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Emissary Institute trains, places, and provides support for couples and families of emissaries assuming rabbinical positions in Jewish communities worldwide; the parallel Beren-Amiel institute does the same for educators. Many of the couples trained in the institute and heading out for shlichut are second-generation shlichim, whose siblings and other relatives have also gone out on shlichut. Apparently, it’s contagious.
Tal and Daniel Levian arrived earlier this year in Denver, Colorado with their son, now a year old, as WZO shlichim. They both teach at the Orthodox Zionist Jewish school there.
Shlichut is a family affair for the Levians too; both of Tal’s older brothers were emissaries in the United States, and Daniel’s brother was a rabbinical shaliach in Sweden. It is Daniel’s second time as a shaliach; when he was still single, he was sent by Torah MiZion to South Africa, and had since hoped to go on another shlichut with the family he would have.
Tal had also hoped an opportunity to be a shlicha would come her way, having witnessed the experience undergone by her brothers. “I learned through them that American Jewry was a huge thing – it’s a world unto itself, a very large part of Am Yisrael, people who are Jews that also observe the Torah and Mitzvot and love it, which is something I was not aware of before”, she explains.
When they met, they were delighted to discover their shared desire to go on a family shlichut, so, once they were married, they too underwent training at the Straus-Amiel Institute to discern which shlichut is best suited to them, how to do it in the best possible way, which positions to assume, and where. They finally came to Denver, where Daniel teaches Jewish Studies at the local school: Talmud, Tanakh, and what they call Jewish Life – halakha, tefilla, shmita, and so on – while Tal teaches Jewish Studies and Hebrew.
Although they’ve always known that the time would come for Tal and Daniel to go away on shlichut, their family misses them, and especially the brand-new grandson. The different time zones in the United States and Israel don’t make things any easier, and neither does the long flight. The Levians have no help with their firstborn, but take comfort in the fact that the local community has welcomed them, and does its best to assist wherever possible.
Still making Aliyah
In terms of Jewish life – in the United States there are, of course, plenty of kosher products, and a Jewish community that’s even more religious that the Levians had expected, according to Tal: “The community associated with the school in which we teach is really frum. You can trust most congregants’ kashrut, and eat at most of their homes. It’s not always like that when you go on shlichut abroad. In general, there’s a very pleasant atmosphere here. in addition to our community in Denver, there’s a large ultra-Orthodox community, and lots of secular or Israeli Jews living in Denver, with whom we are still less acquainted at this stage”.
Denver, which is in the suburbs, is calm and peaceful. The United States is known to have some antisemitic incidents, but members of the congregation that Tal and Daniel have joined feel relatively safe, and usually don’t have to hide Jewish characteristics, or take too many relevant precautions, aside from partial security at the various community establishments – schools, synagogues, etc. – primarily on special occasions.
The connection with Israel is very important to the community, and it has put a lot of money and effort into having shlichim come there, since they hadn’t had shlichim in the community for 15 years. “They really want to raise the level of Hebrew and everything to do with Jewish Studies, and, in general, to have more of an Israeli atmosphere”, Tal adds, saying that, in this community, Aliyah is still absolutely on the map. Almost all high-school graduates spend their gap year in Israel, and entire families immigrate to Israel at relatively high percentages.
What do you place the emphasis on in your shlichut?
“I came, first and foremost, to get to know them”, admits Tal. “It’s something very big, an entire community that is connected to me, and I don’t know them – and now I can get to know them, and learn so many things from them, and they can get to know me, and learn from us what we bring from Israel.
“The issue of Hebrew is very important to me; the level of Hebrew here is not great, and it’s tough to be Jewish or open a Tanach or to be connected to something associated with Judaism without knowing a little Hebrew. It makes you somewhat detached. It was also very important for us to teach high schoolers, because we wanted the kids who were going to Israel after graduation to know that it’s possible to be a religious Zionist, that an observant Jew can be someone modern, relevant, and connected to the contemporary world of 2022”, she explains.
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, Director of both the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Emissary Institutes, explains the ‘genetic aspect’ of the shlichut: “A shlichut for Am Yisrael is a life value that is passed on through family values much like other important values that are passed on from one generation to the next. Just as parents raise their sons and daughters to observe the Torah and be kind, so they teach their children to do shlichut for Am Yisrael. We are proud to be the home of generations of shlichim“.
And indeed, Chaim Touitou says genetics play a huge role, going as far as defining it as a family fixation. The Touitous, currently in their second year of shlichut training at the Straus-Amiel Institute, do not yet know which position they will assume or where, but are designated for community and rabbinical roles.
It all began when Chaim’s parents decided to join the Straus-Amiel training program and go on shlichut as a community rabbinical couple; first to Italy, then Portugal, with his older siblings, before he was born. When Chaim was born, his family moved to Argentina, followed by Brazil. Currently, after several years of ‘time out’ in Israel, they are again on shlichut as the community rabbinical couple – this time in Venice, Italy. Chaim’s sister has also spent a year on shlichut in Hong Kong – and now, it is Chaim’s turn to go out, with the family he has built.
Did you grow up feeling that it’s the obvious thing to do – to go on shlichut?
“I think so”, replies Chaim. “That’s how I saw things, I didn’t see myself working in anything else besides that, except maybe informal education. Even though we are gradually discovering challenges, and all sorts of things, it was always clear to me, and still is, that this is what I’ll be doing, and my wife is also giving the idea a push forward. And now the Straus-Amiel Institute is providing us with the training and tools to help us carry out our shlichut in the best way possible”.
What is your recollection of the childhood experience of having shlichim for parents?
Chaim: “I remember my dad was always on the phone with people who had questions or needed help, and I remember my childhood being spent mostly in the community – we would always return to synagogue, to the community, after school, stay there until nightfall, and then go home – every day. And on Shabbat we were also in the community, of course, in Bnei Akiva, etc. The same was true for Brazil, as well as Argentina. While my parents were on shlichut I learned both Spanish and Portuguese, you can’t make it if you don’t know the language – just because it’s a Jewish community doesn’t mean they speak Hebrew”.
And the concerns about the upcoming challenges – that Chaim may still remember in part as a young child on shlichut – are now emerging, mid-process: “A shlichut, certainly a family one, has its challenges – mostly the issue of language. We don’t know where we’ll be going yet, so we can’t learn the language at the moment”, he explains, elaborating further on their fears: “And, of course, the children. We’re constantly wondering what will happen – will they fit in? Will they have friends to play with, or will they always be surrounded by adults? Kids are very flexible; from personal experience, it’s easy to make friends and learn a language – especially as a kid.
“The parents themselves, the shlichim, also need to adjust, and we’re told that it’s no easy task. Certainly, when you come to a new environment, with its own different culture and mentality – it’s not a walk in the park, and it need to be said. At the same time, shlichim are also offered help from the Institute – you always have someone you can call and whose advice you can ask for. You’re not really alone in the field, just physically”.
What’s important for you to convey as a shaliach?
Chaim: “I’m guided by the Zionist dream, for sure, that eventually everyone will make Aliyah. But if I were to keep both feet on the ground, then at least to strengthen the religious Jewish foundation underlying these communities. Because otherwise, within a generation or two, Judaism will vanish from those places where it isn’t strong enough. As far as I’m concerned, my job is to bolster these places, and give them what I know, and, while I’m at it, I hope to learn from them too.
“At the end of the day, it’s important for a community to organically grow its own rabbis, in order for it to be able to sustain itself without a shaliach as well, so as not to have the process disrupted when the shaliach leaves, and to allow the community to keep pushing itself forward”.
Hard but good
Relocating overseas, even if it’s a shlichut – a more cushioned transition with plenty of support – is a challenge. A foreign language, bureaucracy, different culture, and being far away from your family – don’t make it any easier.
But despite his pre-relocation concerns, Chaim believes that everyone should consider going on shlichut: “Aside from the personal experience, it is extremely significant; both as a family and a community mission to help world Jewry, strengthen them, encourage people to make Aliyah as much as possible, but also enhance the Jewish base overseas”.
Over at the Toybers’, when their fourth child was born and in the months that followed, they were on their own. The circle of life also ran its course, and both of Bentzi’s grandfathers have passed away over the last three months, while he was far away from his grieving family. But despite having to grapple with all of these developments, the Toybers are proud of and delighted with their shlichut. As Bentzi explains it: “The shlichut is a very special experience, and it’s also a time in which we are able to give what we can to Diaspora Jews; it’s the part we play in this enterprise. It’s a huge thing – whoever wants to feel like they’re doing something and are part of something big, should take part in shlichut work. It gives your soul so much, as well as your family, and, of course, Am Yisrael“.
The Levians, who are relatively new shlichim, also feel tremendous satisfaction, despite the challenges: “The beginning is very hard. It’s very hectic, and a lot is expected of shlichim as teachers, even before they are shlichim. And, of course, there are difficulties settling in, communication and culture that are very different. The school works differently administratively and educationally compared to what we’ve known in Israel, and you need to learn to work with it”, says Tal, and adds: “It’s very challenging, but we’re very happy we did it. It’s very meaningful, even the simple encounter every day with the students”, she concludes.