An American in Paramus

An American in Paramus

Federation taps Jersey boy to head Israel center

Liran Kapoano on one of his many visits to Israel

That sets him apart from his predecessors at the helm of the Center for Israel Engagement of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, who came to American as emissaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel on two- or three-year missions.

Not that Kapoano is a stranger to Israel.

His parents are Israelis; they raised their son in Edison but spoke Hebrew to him at home and took him to Israel for summers.

“I really grew up with one foot in New Jersey and one foot in Tel Aviv,” he said. “To this day, if I start speaking to my mother in English, she’ll stop me and force me to start my sentence again in Hebrew.”

Kapoano, 31, went to Jewish day schools, and then started college at Rutgers. But at the same time he got a job selling cell phones. He was promoted and dropped out of school, ultimately overseeing a call center of 250 people and supervising multiple departments. In 2010 he returned to Rutgers, finishing his major in political science and history. He also became engaged in pro-Israel activism, fighting back against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He formed a group called Scarlet, Blue and White: The Rutgers Pro-Israel Alliance.

It’s a good background for overseeing a portfolio of pro-Israel programs, which include Israel advocacy programs for high school students, created to prepare them for what they will find on college campuses.

Kapoano also will oversee the federation’s sister city programs with Nahariya, the northern Israeli town that he first visited 10 years ago when his cousin got married nearby and he stayed there for a few days.

“I fell in love with the city then,” Kapoano said. “It’s a very quiet seaside town.

“I prefer the beach there to Tel Aviv’s any day of the week. I was really reminded of the Jersey shore.”

One practical distinction for the federation – beyond Kapoano’s status as a permanent rather than temporary employee – is that he has been hired directly by the federation, rather than by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which sends its emissaries, called shlichim, to Jewish communities around the world.

The notion of shlichim goes back to the earliest days of the Zionist movement, when emissaries from Palestine provided diaspora Jews with flesh-and-blood exemplars of the exotic Hebrew-speaking pioneer Jews.

Two hundred and fifty shlichim now serve in North America for the Jewish Agency, according to Ariella Feldman, the agency’s director of shlichut initiatives.

“We understand and agree that communities need to make the decisions that are appropriate for them,” she said about the North Jersey federations’ decision not to bring in a community shliach to run the Israel’s programs.

“We’re glad there continue to be shlichim in the community,” she said, referring to the two post-army emissaries running Israel programs at the Wayne Y and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

(In addition, some area Jewish day schools have Israelis who do their national service as shlichim; these b’not sherut are partially funded by the Jewish Agency, but organized and overseen by the B’nai Akiva youth movement.)

“We do believe a shaliach brings something that no one else can bring,” Feldman said. “They have an immediate connection to Israel, a current connection. The shaliach that is in your community today was yesterday in Modi’in or Jerusalem.”

For the shaliach, Feldman said, the experience in the Diaspora often is educational.

For the federation, not having to be part of that education is a plus.

Kapoano sees a lot of potential for growth in the federation’s Israel activities.

“There is a substantial Israeli community in the area that can be engaged with,” he said. “There is also a substantial American community that’s very pro Israel, that can be further engaged beyond what we have already done in the past.”

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