There’s no place too far or too isolated
In New-Zealand and England and even in far-off Brazil, the shlichim of Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel are active in hundreds of Jewish communities around the world. The common denominator: strengthening Jewish identity, fighting assimilation, and also their language – the language of Religious Zionism.
Yair Kraus | Makor Rishon Weekend Supplement
Rabbi Ariel and Rachel Tal hardly expected the kind of welcome that awaited them a few weeks ago when they landed in a remote corner of the globe – Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. While the couple and their four daughters were refreshing themselves in a little airport hotel in Malaysia, waiting for their connecting flight, Rabbi Ariel received a text message from the head of the Jewish community telling him what his first mission as rabbi would be as soon as he landed. “The message read: ‘Unfortunately, one of the elderly women in our community passed away at the age of 96. Her funeral will take place on Wednesday.’ I had a very short evening to recover from the flight, and the following morning I had to make preparations for the funeral service and the meeting with the family. It was my first encounter with the community,” Rabbi Ariel relates in a trans-Atlantic phone call.
It’s nighttime here in Israel, morning by him; the first rains of winter are falling here, a summer’s day by him. “It was really strange,” he tells us. “Even before unpacking my suitcases in my new home, I was already busy preparing the funeral service and the eulogies, and dealing with all the related Jewish laws. The logistics were the responsibility of the local Chevra Kadisha.”
Rabbi Tal opened his eulogy with a short introduction: “Under the circumstances, I had to begin by introducing myself: ‘I am Rabbi Tal and I am the new rabbi of the community. I would have preferred getting to know you under happier circumstances, but death is also a part of our life cycle.’ It seems I made a good impression on the community. The situation presented an opportunity to get to know the people on my very first day on the job,” he says with a modest smile and apparent satisfaction. His work environment looks like a scene from Lord of the Rings or Avatar – some of the scenes in these movies were filmed in the beautiful scenery overlooked from his office in the local Community House.
For the past 20 years, shlichim sent out by Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Program for Rabbis and the Beren-Amiel Emissary Training Program for Educators have been working in communities all over the world; in well-known and central communities, as well as in others that are quite remote. The young rabbis and rabbaniot, who underwent two years of training in preparation for complex life of shlichut – filled with challenges but also great satisfaction – bring with them a new spirit of Religious Nationalism and Zionism. Two hundred and ninety shlichim sent out by the two institutes are currently working in Jewish communities all over the world, as rabbis, educators or community leaders.
Rabbi Eli Magzimof and his wife Rivka, OTS shlichim at the University of Leeds in England, are an active part of student life on campus, as part of their vision to lead and strengthen the local Jewish community. They have lived there for the past four and a half years with their three children. “We work as the campus rabbinical couple at the University of Leeds and in nine other universities in the Yorkshire district, but we are based in Leeds – not in a permanent Jewish community, but in the city’s student community. One might say we live in a place made up solely of students. In terms of family life, this is quite a challenge, but our children have gained many ‘older brothers and sisters,'” Eli says with a smile.
The Magzimof children learn in a small Jewish school which was founded by Chabad shlichim in the region. There are about 1,500 Jewish students in Leeds, and each of the surrounding cities has a few dozen more. They are the couple’s target audience. Rivka relates her thoughts on the meaning of shlichut in a university town: “One of the burning issues we often discuss is ‘What does it mean to be Jewish?’ – not in terms of religious observance but in an attempt to find out what values are dear to us and what responsibility we have as Jews. In an age when everybody is equal and everything must be ‘politically correct,’ and the mere proclamation ‘I am Jewish’ may be perceived as a type of racism – searching for Jewish meaning is undoubtedly a big challenge.”
In the face of escalating assimilation, alongside the search for meaning and identity, the couple offers an open house to all Jews looking for their roots. “Fortunately for us – though it is also a challenge – we work with young people aged 18 to 24. This is the age when people shape their identity, learn about themselves and choose their path in life. We try to channel them in the right direction,” says Rivka.
In light of escalating assimilation figures in world Jewry, the couple spend their days literally fighting for every Jew. Rivka: “The issue of assimilation is something we deal with every single day. We believe that the way to deal with this enormous challenge is to understand the profound meaning of Judaism, not only in religious terms, but also culturally and socially. It is our belief that when a person connects with his/her Jewish identity, the importance of preserving Jewish tradition becomes all the clearer. Even if we are able to help one single person change his or her path and choose to build a Jewish home – for us it suffices.”
Never forgetting where home is
In much the same way as the Tal and Magzimof families, Rabbi Amichai and Ronit Nachshoni are also on shlichut in a rather singular location. They both work as educators in a school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where they arrived with their three children a year ago. On Chol Ha’Mo’ed Sukkot, they were joined by yet another native-born shlicha – their fourth daughter, Ta’ir Emunah.
I ask Rabbi Amichai with great curiosity, ‘How did you get to Brazil, of all places?’ He admits that he has often been asked about this choice. “Brazil is indeed very far from the Holy Land, but every ‘hole’ has its ‘holiness,’ and I am referring to the Jewish souls who live here.” He and his wife work in the local Beis Ya’akov school as teachers of Hebrew and prayer, and along with the rest of the educational staff they instill Jewish identity and the spirit of Torah in the schoolchildren. “Besides our roles in the school, we are always on the lookout for things that require our attention and need nurturing. For example, we hold chavruta sessions with members of other communities; we offer a Torah lesson for youth in our home at the end of every Shabbat; we give guidance to grooms and brides-to-be, we host people on Shabbat and Jewish Holidays and so forth.”
The challenges faced by all of the couples we have interviewed are numerous and complex, but the fight against assimilation is top priority for all, and the Nachshoni couple is no exception. “One of the reasons we ventured out on shlichut was the fact that assimilation rates are very high among the Diaspora communities. We believe that it is important to take action in order to reduce this trend, and this can only be done through personal contact and by adopting the approach that ‘he who saves one Jewish soul is considered to have saved an entire world.’ The community in Sao Paulo is very aware of assimilation and does a lot to mitigate it. One example is the Yigdal project, through which we locate Jewish children who learn in mixed (Jews and non-Jews) schools, and bring them closer to Judaism through Torah lessons and by building and warm and close relationship with them. The strong relationship we have with the schoolchildren is vital. This, in addition to the personal example we set and the numerous lessons and activities we engage in, helps strengthen Jewish identity.”
Unlike shlichim sent out by the Jewish Agency or other Zionist movements who arrive at any given destination on the globe for a period of up to four years, the shlichim of Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel are geared towards integrating into community life abroad over a longer period of time. They understand that detaching themselves from the Land of Israel is a circumstantial necessity, but they still see themselves as temporary emissaries who must still return to their home base one day.
“Life abroad is undoubtedly more comfortable in many respects, but home is still Israel,” says Rabbi Eli Magzimof. “It makes no difference how long we live in any given place, we will never feel at home. We believe that our only home is the Land of Israel. However, we are very aware of the fact that the experience we are gaining impacts our work, and it is apparent that in the last two years our work has been more effective than in previous years. That said, one still has to remember what the goal is and where we are aiming. Is the objective to go abroad, serve in a community and settle down there, or is the objective to come back to Israel?
“In the past, if a shaliach went on shlichut for four years and stayed an additional year, he would be viewed by many organizations as a yored (an Israeli who emigrated from Israel), and it would be a mark of disgrace. Today there is greater awareness of the shlichim’s meaningful role and that deep connections are built over time. However, there must still be clear intent to return to Israel, and this, too, is a significant part of shlichut. If you do not come back home, you are not really a shaliach.”
“A long term stay abroad doesn’t suit everybody. Personally, we see our return home at the end of the shlichut as something very meaningful, a personal example of the Zionist message we have been trying to convey to our students,” Rivka adds. “We have now started our fifth year of activity in Leeds and Yorkshire, and the things we will be doing this year are much bigger and will be affecting a great many more. There is no doubt that time and experience play a significant role in all of this. We try our best to keep in touch with the dear people we have met over time, especially with those who have made aliya and currently live in Israel. It is clear to us that we will continue working with those who have made aliya when we ourselves return home. The bond we have made with Diaspora Jewry is in our blood and is part of our very being.”
“It goes without saying that at some point we will want to return to Israel,” say the Tals from New-Zealand, “but we have not come for a short while only to leave again. We intend on staying until we can say we have made an impact on the community and feel a part of it.” And what about being so far away from all the relatives? Their parents from Jerusalem have already let them know that in the Winter – i.e. when it is Summer in New-Zealand – they plan on coming for a visit.
Rabbi Amichai and Ronit Nachshoni, Brazil: “When one is on shlichut , the nuclear family becomes a source of energy and light for the entire community. Don’t you forget that.”
More like Israeli post than Amazon
The Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Institutes are headed by Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, and in recent decades he has devoted his life to Diaspora Jewry – both in his capacity as a rabbi of numerous communities abroad as well in his search around the world for Jews and descendants of Jews. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of the Ohr Torah Stone network, turned to him with the following request: to create a training program, under the auspices of the network, which would train rabbis and educators before embarking on Zionist-Religious shlichut and give them the necessary tools to deal with the challenges of working with communities abroad.
Rabbi Eli and Rivka Magzimof, England: “Fortunately for us – though it is also a challenge – we work with young people aged 18 to 24. This is the age when people shape their identity, learn about themselves and choose their path in life. We try to channel them in the right direction.”
“We are celebrating 20 years of activity. The vision of the institute is showing concern and taking responsibility for the Jewish People, or as we are used to saying – ‘we face and embrace the entire Jewish people’, Rabbi Birnbaum explains. The future of the Jewish people is not guaranteed, he says, and that is why there is need for action: “The way in which one can have both an individual and a collective impact on Jews, while strengthening their identity and connection to the Jewish People, is by means of rabbis and educators with a Zionist-nationalistic approach, who are able to speak at eye level to Jews from different communities and demonstrate sensitivity.” The graduates of the institute are spread all over the world, from Norway to Guatemala; Toronto to Poland and from the Caribbean Islands all the way to Australia. “We make a point of sending out shlichim to communities that are not necessarily comprised of observant Jews.”
What does the shlichim training program entail?
“Much of the training evolves around the notion that no matter where I go, I am going to the Jewish People. We try to convey to our shlichim that they are not only professionals but they are people who can create change: in the community, in schools and in the Jewish People – of course this is done in coordination with the community members and its leaders. The minute a person acts with a sense of mission, his/her entire being is channeled towards this goal, and the work becomes less trying and less threatening.
“Moreover, our shlichim undergo training for a period of two years, men and women alike, and we give them the tools to deal with the challenges in order to succeed. We also prepare them to live in a community that is not necessarily observant. We give them the tools to promote good rhetoric and oration skills; formal and informal education; leadership and presence; we also offer courses in psychology and numerous other topics. After a family of shlichim arrives in its new community (after we have carefully made the match), we do not forsake them, but offer support and guidance for as long as it’s needed, and in the event that challenges or hardships arise and counseling or an halakhic ruling is required – we are always there for the family.”
Rabbi Birnbaum’s schedule is full to the point of disbelief. Every week he finds himself in a different location on the globe, visiting shlichim or travelling to remote Jewish communities. “We are constantly paying visits to our shlichim, and that is one of the reasons I find myself in a different part of the world each week. We also hold conferences – once a year in Europe, and once a year in North America and Latin America. In a month and a half from now we will be holding a conference in Venice for the wives of our shlichim, and in four months a similar conference will be held in Cancun, Mexico and in the Caribbean Islands for shlichim in North America and South America. We are constantly in touch and when we meet the discussions are always productive and interesting ideas come up.”
Let’s get back to our shlichim. We ask them to offer some tips to the next shlichim in line, those who will soon be settling into their new communities around the world.
Rabbi Eli and Rivka Magzimof: “The most important piece of advice is to remember to delegate responsibility to the community. Often times shlichim feel they have to take all the responsibility and offer everything on a silver platter. One of the things we learned is that we must give others the tools to deal with things on their own, to empower them so that they become doers instead of receivers. This creates deeper involvement. Furthermore, we were taught to be patient and not expect to see the fruits of our labor instantly. It’s not like ordering something from Amazon and getting it two days later. It takes much longer than that. It’s more like the Israeli post, if you will. If you have patience to wait for a package sent through the Israel Post, then you have patience for shlichut,” they say with a tease.
Rabbi Ariel Tal: “You must prioritize and think what you wish to invest in now and what could be done later on. Don’t drive yourself crazy, it does nobody any good. Take time for your family and invest in your relationship as a couple. It is not worth sacrificing one’s marriage on the alter of shlichut. I know people who have gotten divorced and whose homes have been ruined because they did not know how to take the time to invest in their own marriage and family. Another thing, if you need good friends to talk to, share with and let off steam – choose people who are not part of the community or the school. The parents of your students are not your friends. Look for other shlichim in the vicinity, or in other cities, even non-Jews. The main thing is not to involve people from the community in your personal life, because you are constantly being scrutinized and measured up and you must always act professionally with everybody. That is why it is so important not to blur the borders, otherwise you might find yourself in some really awkward or embarrassing situations.”
The Nachshoni couple also points out the importance of intimacy and the family. “As a family on shlichut you basically leave you natural setting and familiar surroundings, land in a strange land and find yourself alone without the extended family. So when one is on shlichut, the nuclear family becomes a source of energy and light for the entire community. Don’t you forget that.”
A new initiative: wandering shlichim strengthen ties with small communities around the world
In light of the fact that Jewish communities are becoming less connected to their Jewish identity and the State of Israel, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs has launched a new initiative in recent months. As part of this project, the franchisee – Ohr Torah Stone – will be sending out more than 150 delegations this year alone to Jewish communities in the Diaspora, with the aim of connecting small Jewish communities all over the world. The project is based on the insight that one-time encounters cannot replace a long-term and ongoing connection.
The project is called OTS Amiel BaKehila and is already underway in partnership with the local leadership of 25 different communities across the globe. The delegations, which comprise educators, lecturers and artists, create meaningful and multi-faceted programs with the aim of consolidating the local community and deepening its connection to Judaism and the State of Israel. Delegations are sent out on a ten-day cycle six times a year. Each cycle includes visits to a number of communities. Next year the initiative is due to expand further and the number of delegations will double.
Unlike similar initiatives, the delegations are specifically sent out to small and mid-sized communities, comprising between 500 and 10,000 Jews, with the understanding that until now these communities were not fortunate enough to maintain permanent ties with Israel or enjoy visits by shlichim through the existing shlichut programs. Moreover, in order to bridge the language gap (which often creates a feeling alienation between the communities and the shlichim), the shlichim of this program always speak the local language of the community to which they are sent. Each delegation is headed by an expert educator who guides the community and is responsible for upholding constant ties, accompanied by two additional figures (different people for each session) who focus on Zionist and Israeli achievement in the fields of security, hi-tech, politics and culture. To name but a few of the communities that will now have the privilege of such visits: Cancun (Mexico) and Guatemala City in Latin America; Warsaw (Poland) and Copenhagen (Denmark) in Europe; Ottawa (Canada) and New-Orleans (Louisiana) in North America.