Emissaries bring flavor of Israel to local JCCs

Emissaries bring flavor of Israel to local JCCs

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

Keren Glick is just beginning to get her bearings at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. As the new shlicha, whose job is to forge a better connection between Israel and the Bergen County Jewish community, she is just getting a sense of which of her predecessor’s programs to continue and what gaps need filling to strengthen that bond.

The position, shared and funded by the JCC, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and the Tzofim – the Israeli Scouts movement, aimed primarily at engaging teens – also gives the organizations ways to spike their programming with a little Israeli and Jewish ta’am (flavor).

And according to Glick, 21, the best way to do that is the old-fashioned way – one on one.

Keren Glick, left, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and Rotem Nahum at JCC Rockland are part of a growing number of shlichim placed in Jewish community centers.

“I want to make as many individual connections as possible, so everyone will know how it feels to be an Israeli,” Glick said. “And vice versa. I want to learn about the culture here and bring that back to Israel.”

Like her predecessors, Glick will work at the JCC for at least a year, although she has an option to extend her stay for two years. She will divide her time between teen programming at the JCC in teen leadership and Hebrew programs; working in the wider community through the federation on programs for Yom Haatzma-ut and Yom Hazikaron (Independence Day and Memorial Days, respectively); and working with Bergen County’s large Israeli population. Many local Israelis enroll their children in the Tzofim program, which is patterned after the Scouts movement in Israel.

It is a tall order, creating programming that meets the needs of so many and reaches into every age group. But Glick, a self-described “girly girl,” is in Tenafly, straight from her service in the Israel Defense Force, thinks she is up to the task.

In her three years in the IDF, Glick served as a sniper instructor, spending what she estimates was 80 percent of her time on the shooting range, working with both new soldiers and seasoned reservists. And yes, she is a good shot, by her own admission.

Glick, a native of Shoham, about 26 miles from Tel Aviv, is not a first-timer in the United States. She was a camper at Tamarack, a residential camp in Michigan, and has worked at the Union of Reform Judaism’s Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Mass.

The shlichut program, which is run through the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been very successful at the JCC, according to its executive director, Avi Lewinson. Now in its seventh year, the program helps foster a strong Israeli presence for teens while working closely with other Jewish organizations, he said.

“There’s an energy and passion for their work,” Lewinson said. “They are young and idealistic and dedicated. I’ve been very happy with the program and how it’s worked.”

That sentiment is growing among JCCs, where the Jewish Agency has placed an increasing number of emissaries over the past 10 years, according to Ariella Feldman, director of shlichut initiatives for the organization. Traditionally, shlichim worked through federations, but over the years JCCs have come to see the value in using the young Israelis as educators and to provide a bridge to understanding Israel and Israeli culture.

Often the programs are run in partnership with other organizations, Feldman said. That is how the JCC’s program operates. The overall cost, which varies with the cost of living in each area, comes to about $45,000, which covers housing, bills, transportation, and a living stipend.

The youthfulness is a large part of the program’s appeal. “They bring a very young, energetic perspective,” she said. “This Israeli lives in the community and becomes part of the community. They are full-time staff members who bring themselves, which is Israel, so it becomes something very real, not something we see on TV, or that I learned in Hebrew school.”

Feldman said that there are 53 emissaries in the young shlichim program; 11 of them work through JCCs. JCC Rockland, which just finished hosting its first shaliach, Daniel Sonnenschein, after a two-year stint, was so pleased with the program that organizers signed on again before all the funding was in place.

Sonnenschein worked with everyone from toddlers in a tot Shabbat program to their often-opinionated elders in Schmooze the News b’Ivrit (in Hebrew). He created most of these programs himself. Rotem Nahum, 21, will be taking on his role. She wants to keep the Schmooze program going, as well as a popular film series that featured a different Israeli film each month, followed by a discussion.

She has not figured out just yet what she will do to put her own stamp on the program, but she wants to develop an activity that will bring her love of Israeli music to others.

Mostly she is excited about the challenge of being in a new place and working with people from different walks of life.

“Working with people with different backgrounds and perspectives matures you,” said Nahum, who is from Kiryat Tivon near Haifa. “You learn and you give and get back.”

Nahum already has a great deal of experience working with people from varied cultures. In the army she worked with immigrant Ethiopians and Druze, teaching them Hebrew and life skills. She found their non-Western orientation intriguing, and gained a fresh perspective from the Ethiopians on the racism they have dealt with.

“I learned so much from them, more than they learned from me,” she said.

Joshua Krakoff, JCC Rockland’s chief operating officer, said that Nahum’s experience with Ethiopians and Druze is something the JCC hopes to highlight, and that it will enable Nahum to put her own stamp on programs. Her perspective as a woman in the military also will be refreshing, given the promised influx of more ultra-Orthodox into the military and the roadblocks they have placed on women in the public sphere.

“We really wanted to continue the work Daniel had done in the community,” Krakoff said, noting that the pervious shaliach also had worked in several Hebrew schools and with a local day school. “We were pleased with the results and the feedback we got from our partners in the community, and we wanted to continue to build this bridge to Israel.”

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