Jewish Agency for Israel

THE NECESSARY EMISSARY

“In my initial discussions with emissaries,” remarks Yehuda Setton, Director of the Shlichim and Fellows Unit at The Jewish Agency for Israel, “I tell them that in a world where we are fighting for resources – they are the most important asset the Jewish people have”

There are currently 2,000 Jewish Agency emissaries stationed in 150 countries around the world. The 12,000 candidates for these positions come from all over Israel, and the number of selected candidates has grown. “In 2010 or 2011, we sent approximately 300 shlichim,” says Setton, using the Hebrew term for emissaries. Eighty percent are under the age of 30, and there is an equal number of women and men. Most are single.

Pnina Agenyahu (front left) with other Jewish Agency emissaries in the US

Five tracks

There are five different emissary tracks, and sojourns abroad range from periods of three to six months to four years, depending on the program. Service Year Shlichim – also known as “Shinshinim” – are high school graduates who delay their IDF service for up to a year in order to serve in Diaspora Jewish communities. Summer Camp Shlichim are sent to Jewish summer camps in order to introduce campers to Israeli culture. Youth Movement Shlichim work with Jewish youth movements abroad. Community Shlichim are people between the ages of 23 to 45 who spend up to four years living and working in Jewish communities in eight different countries, with the largest concentration in the United States. Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel are post-army university graduates who serve on university campuses throughout North America and around the world.

Once candidates are selected, they undergo training. While there are common themes that are addressed, most are designed to focus on issues that are relevant to a particular track. Participants receive training on a wide range of subjects, including what it means to be an emissary, Jewish and Israeli heritage, Diaspora Jewish communities and pluralistic Judaism. They are even given practical information about the geographic locales to which they will be sent.

Most emissaries are sponsored either by the local communities or by donors, and there has to be cooperation. “Our shlichim aren’t missionaries,” emphasizes Setton. “There must be a local partner before we’ll consider sending an emissary to a community.”

Sending young Israelis abroad

Setton knows from personal experience that these Jewish Agency emissaries go on a journey that will change their lives as well as the lives of the people they encounter. Prior to working as director of the Shlichim and Israel Fellows unit and director of the long-term Shlichut unit, Setton was the co-chair of the Shlichim delegation in Southern California. He also worked for the Israel Scouts as director of the Tzofim Friendship Caravan and as Southwest regional director of the Friends of Israel Scouts organization.

“Sending young Israelis abroad shakes up communities and gives members of these local communities the opportunity to formulate their own opinions,” says Setton. Shlichim impact hundreds of thousands of people through educational and communal programming, helping to connect Diaspora Jews to Israel and to their own Jewish identities.

Pnina Agenyahu is one such emissary. She is currently the senior shlicha for Israel engagement in the Washington DC area. “There’s something incredible in being an emissary,” remarks Agenyahu. “It’s an amazing experience to come to a new community. It gives you strength both personally and professionally; it gives you the feeling that there is so much more out there than what’s happening in Israel.”

Agenyahu has been fascinated by the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities since participating in a student exchange at age 18, when she was exposed to different streams of Judaism for the first time. After she married, she decided that she wanted to make an impact as a community emissary. “There is something much stronger in actually living in a community compared to coming simply for short visits,” she notes. “You feel like a member of the community, learning to understand how it works and what it needs.”

Agenyahu’s responsibilities and tasks are varied. She has played a role in initiating programs for youth and acts as a resource regarding anything having to do with Israel. She has been instrumental in helping to create the Federation’s multifaceted “Imagine Israel” campaign, designed to enable community members to connect more deeply with Israel. She was also involved in bringing a group of young emissaries to serve in local synagogues and schools for the next two years. Other accomplishments have included programs connecting local organizations with Israeli organizations that have shared interests, and a project with JCRC that teaches college-bound youth how to talk about Israel on campus.

Agenyahu is married with two young sons and is the first long-term community emissary hailing from the Ethiopian-Israeli community. She comes from a religious background and her husband comes from a secular background. As a family, they attend a Conservative synagogue in Washington. She arrived in 2013 for three years, and the family decided to extend their stay for an additional year. “There is so much to do,” she says, “and this is what attracted me.”

Coming home

Once the emissaries return home, the Jewish Agency helps them to network. “While abroad, they inspire others and receive inspiration, which they, in turn, bring back to the Israeli people when they return,” Setton enthuses. “Very few people are given such an opportunity to have this kind of experience. We are here to help continue this journey.”

Slav Leibin returned last year from two years of service as the very first shaliach at Princeton University, where his responsibilities included engaging students about Israel through a variety of activities, and advising them about Israel programs. He also led a successful campaign against a campus vote to divest from three companies with business dealings in Israel and organized monthly meetings addressing Jewish and homosexual issues. In addition, he organized the first LGBT Shabbat dinner.

Leibin looks back fondly on his time at Princeton. “Professionally, it was an amazing experience. I was responsible for planning events and I learned how to find the right way to engage different kinds of people,” he says. Personally, he made many local friends and worked hard to become part of life there. It was also an opportunity to reconnect with himself. “I had a lot of alone time. I was faced with questions and had time to think.”

Leibin now lives in Tel Aviv with his fiancé, a German national he met while in Princeton, and teaches leadership skills and public speaking – both of which he learned during his shlichut. He also volunteers with Israel Gay Youth (IGY) and, through his Rainbow Tour TLV initiative, organizes LGBT tours of Tel Aviv that are open to the public and combine visits to historical places with culture and personal stories. All profits go to IGY, and feedback is positive. Leibin hopes the initiative will grow. “It’s good for the community,” he says.

Setton speaks passionately about shlichut. “Think about the kinds of changes that can happen when 2000 young emissaries return to Israel each year and have an influence on society. We have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation of leaders in Israeli society feels responsibility for the entire Jewish nation.” W

For more information about The Jewish Agency for Israel and its programs, go to www.jewishagency.org