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Bezalel: From Washington to Toronto, Shlichut and storytelling run in the family

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(Amos Ben Gershon/GPO photo)

It is a unique educational challenge to take up the mantle of sharing Israel’s storied past and simultaneously, its successful but complicated present.

That is the defining role of shlichim (Israeli emissaries), who try to cultivate greater connections between Israel and world Jewry at a time when Israel’s global image is much different and, in some ways, more contentious than it was decades ago.

I have experienced these dynamics across multiple generations in my own family. When my parents served as shlichim in Washington, D.C., from 2001-2004 — in fact, they first met because my father interviewed my mother before she embarked on her shlichut (emissary work) — I witnessed firsthand the significant contributions they made to the causes of Jewish unity and their community’s relationship with Israel.

Today, I am trying to recreate that flavour in my shlichut in Toronto. Perhaps the day-to-day tasks of emissaries have changed since my parents’ service, but the centrality of building interpersonal relationships as well as connecting Diaspora Jews to the land and people of Israel — often through the stories that we tell — has remained the same. In each Diaspora community, it is an ongoing and expansive dialogue between Israel and the emissary, between the overseas community and the emissary, and between that community and Israel.

Serving Israel within the Toronto community is a tremendous privilege. Amid recent challenges such as anti-Israel activities on college and university campuses, the local pro-Israel community’s strength and ability to collaborate has been truly inspirational.

It is also inspiring to see just how many local organizations seek to work with the Jewish Agency for Israel’s shin-shinim — the Israeli high school graduates who delay mandatory service in the Israel Defence Forces and serve Diaspora communities for up to 12 months — because they understand and appreciate the vigour and enthusiasm that these young Israelis bring to their communities.

A total of 22 shinshinim serve in Toronto. It is so rewarding to know that these young Israelis are able to connect with people of all ages, not just those of a similar generation.

At the same time, shlichut also comes with its challenges. Although my parents essentially prepared me for this role throughout my life, and despite the warmth of my community in Toronto, serving as an emissary can still be somewhat of a lonely exercise. Working on Israel’s behalf and speaking passionately about its successes and failures, foibles and idiosyncrasies, and people and culture all provides me an emotional closeness with my homeland, but also exacerbates the physical distance. In those times, I am sustained by the groundwork that my parents laid before me as shlichim and also by my burning sense of mission.

As a native Israeli, it can be easy to misinterpret or misunderstand what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora. Living as a Jew in Israel often means that you don’t really need to think about what it means to be Jewish. But given our travels, my nuclear family has developed a different kind of Jewish and Zionist identity. By growing up during my parents’ shlichut in Washington, my sister and I were exposed to streams of Judaism that we did not previously understand in Israel. Our upbringing reinforced how much Jews in Israel and internationally have to learn from each other’s experiences, and the same message is continually driven home for me in Toronto today.

It is simple, yet endlessly powerful to understand that the strong relationship between the Canadian Jewish community and Israel is based upon the mutual stories that we tell. At its core, shlichut is about making connections between people of different backgrounds, languages and experiences. It is a constant search for the threads that tie us together, for the bonds of our shared heritage.

By telling Israel’s story and their own stories — by being open and allowing their current communities to understand where they come from and what is important to them, while continuing to unpack their personal journeys — shlichim are cementing strong relationships for generations to come.

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Noa Bezalel is the shlicha and mentor for The Jewish Agency for Israel’s 22 UJA Shinshinim in Toronto.