An Israeli couple who arrived in Englewood in August and have been working as youth directors at Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue and as educators at Ben Porat Yosef day school in Paramus joined 40 other Israeli emissaries working in 11 North, Central, and South American countries in Cancun, Mexico. They were at a meeting sponsored by the Ohr Torah Stone training programs they had completed in Israel before beginning their assignments.
The educators gathered in Cancun to discuss strategies for fulfilling their missions effectively and tackling critical issues, such as assimilation and Jewish illiteracy, that mainly affect smaller diaspora Jewish communities.
Those issues are not particularly relevant to Rabbi Yaakov and Merav Wacks, because they live and work in large, well-organized, and actively affiliated Bergen County Jewish communities. What they brought to the table were ideas for inspiring children in the diaspora to feel fully part of Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel — something relevant to any Jewish community.
Rabbi Wacks led a group discussion on best practices and ways of injecting experiential elements of informal education into a formal education environment. “We live and work in a beautiful Jewish community,” he said. “Yet American kids are not so different from those in Israel. They need constant activities in order to keep them engaged in learning Torah.
“How can we take the tools we use as educators to instill greater Jewish values in our students’ lives, both inside and outside the classroom? If we affect our students, we believe that will spread to their homes and families.”
He told the story of how, In his fourth-grade class at Ben Porat Yosef, he built up the children’s excitement before what could have been a dry text-based lesson about Joshua leading the Jewish people into the Promised Land. Rabbi Wacks sent invitations to his pupils for a simulated crossing of the Jordan River. The mock river-crossing was outdoors; the children dressed as ancient Israelites and carried a model of the Holy Ark that they had made in class.
Ms. Wacks said she came away from the conference with ideas for how to better engage her second-graders in taking initiative in the educational process. “As a teacher, I want kids always to be motivated to learn,” she said. “We usually reach them top-down, so I was interested to hear how we can encourage learning from the bottom up.”
Both Rabbi and Ms. Wacks said that they enjoyed sharing ideas and hearing the perspectives of other participants in the three-day conference. Other educators are working in Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, El Salvador and Ecuador, as well as in Sharon, Mass.; Charleston, South Carolina; Denver, Omaha, and Detroit, and in Palo Alto, Miami, and Aventura.
“This is the best of times in that Jews are seeking spirituality, yet the worst of times because there is more assimilation in these communities than we have ever seen,” Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander said. Rabbi Brander is Ohr Torah Stone’s president and rosh hayeshiva; he and his family made aliyah from Teaneck last summer.
Rabbi Brander said the emissaries, who were trained at the Straus-Amiel Practical Rabbinics Program and the Beren-Amiel Practical Training Program for Educational Emissaries before they were placed in diaspora communities, “are on the front lines of the battle for Jewish souls. They are a modern Orthodox army giving their lives to change the Jewish world. There is a new energy out in the field.”
Participants attended sessions on why Jews assimilate and how to understand and reach those Jews; how to cultivate a curiosity for Torah learning in children and adults; how to set rules for a community or shul for congregants who are not religiously observant; the pros and cons of getting involved in community and national politics; how to bring Jews closer in a small community; how to work alongside existing outreach organizations; and how to reach community members who are not inclined to attend programming or synagogue services.
“The greatest challenge these men and women face is how to transmit Judaism to people with no connection,” Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel programs, said. (Ohr Torah Stone is a modern Orthodox network of 27 institutions whose stated mission is to “transform Jewish life, learning and leadership worldwide.”) “We work with these exceptional rabbis and educators to provide them with the training, development, and support to be successful in their communities.
“An equally important part of our job is to support these families so they can stay in their communities for longer periods of time and continue to make a difference in the lives of Jews everywhere,” he added. “Many of these communities would not have modern Orthodox synagogues and educators were it not for our emissaries.”
Of course this is not the case for Yaakov and Merav Wacks. They said they feel fortunate to work with East Hill Synagogue’s Rabbi Zev and Chana Reichman and with Ben Porat Yosef’s head of school, Rabbi Saul Zucker, and its Judaic studies principal, Dr. Chagit Hadar. The Wacks described Rabbi Zucker and Dr. Hadar as dynamic leaders who value the “Israeli spirit” and the immersive Hebrew language the Wacks family brings to the synagogue and day school.
“We know that these are strong Torah communities, and it is a big privilege for us to be here with people who are so open to that spirit,” Ms. Wacks said.
The couple and their three children, who range in age from 5 and a half to 2 1/2, arrived in New Jersey from Neveh Daniel, a town south of Jerusalem.
The Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel emissary training programs place rabbis and educators in more than 160 communities across the diaspora. As they work abroad for a year or more, participants receive ongoing support and training via email, newsletters, phone calls, visits, regional seminars, and international conferences.