Avinoam Segal-Elad is not new to the United States.
The community’s new director of the Center for Israel Engagement and community shaliach, based at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, has a cousin in Teaneck and parents who made aliyah from the United States in 1973, after the Yom Kippur War.
For the past few years, he and his wife, Havi – the couple have two children with one on the way – have spent the High Holy Days in Westchester, N.Y., where he has served as chazan.
“I love to sing,” he said. “I love davening.”
Segal-Elad took up his position two weeks ago and will serve for two years. He said he was in “constant contact” with people in the community for the past few months, in order to hit the ground running.
|Israel is “rich in Jewish life and beautiful things are happening,” says the community’s new shaliach, Avinoam Segal-Elad.|
“I have an American background,” he said. “My father is a Conservative rabbi and held several major positions in the Conservative movement. I grew up what you call ‘Conservadox,’ attending Orthodox elementary schools and studying for a year at a yeshivah before the army. I’m comfortable in both movements.”
One of the things Segal-Elad brings to his position “is a willingness to accept everyone as they are. We need to send out that message.”
“It’s amazing to see how much is going on here when we’re talking about rich Jewish life and [programs about] Israel.”
In Israel, he worked as a lawyer, serving in the attorney general’s office in Jerusalem and dealing with public law. He and his wife were looking for a change, however. “We wanted to do something significant and then go back,” he said.
His goal as shaliach, he said, will be to establish a kind of “roundtable, to bring people from all congregations, JCCs, and schools to think together about how we can reach people who are not participating – how we can collaborate, enlarge our influence, and strengthen Jewish identity.”
Segal-Elad praised the Birthright Israel model, premised on the notion that strengthening one’s connection to Israel strengthens Jewish identity.
“I don’t believe every Jew should make aliyah,” he said. “The main thing about a closer connection with Israel is to strengthen Jewish identity and reach those not involved.”
The shaliach said he worked with a few Birthright trips and saw the effects of that philosophy.
“It’s a different thing when you go, when you meet Israelis,” he said, noting that this also helps “normalize” the image of Israel, which too often is portrayed as a country in constant conflict. “I want to show that Israel is more than a country with a strong army and in conflict. It’s also a normal place with young people struggling to pay their mortgage.”
He sees the country’s social justice protests – which began in July and drew thousands of young Israelis from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds – as a particularly positive example.
“The demonstration was an opportunity to see a different kind of Israel,” he said. “That’s normal and beautiful to see.”
Hearing the news reports and reading newspapers gives a “wrong perspective,” he said. It shows a “dangerous place to be in – riots, conflict, war. We have some of that, but most is normal life. It’s rich in Jewish life and beautiful things are happening.”
In addition to his planned roundtable, he said, the Israel center will continue its Israeli film festival. He also cited the community’s ongoing connection with the city of Nahariya, including interactive projects among schools in both countries.