When Yisca Shalev first arrived in the United States in 2009 — sent by the Jewish Agency for Israel for a one-year posting as Israeli shliha, or emissary, to the Central NJ community — she was warm and forthcoming but still a nervous newcomer. But this summer — her third stint of service to the local community — she said she feels like family.
The 26-year-old from the West Bank community of Kedumim is serving as the Israel culture specialist at the summer camp run by the YM-YWHA of Union County, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and helping supervise the young Israelis working as summer shlihim there.
The NJ connection has changed Shalev’s direction in some ways, and confirmed it in others. When she was growing up, her family, Orthodox Jews with a Sephardi background, often hosted young people visiting Israel in their home. That personal connection with Jews from the Diaspora inspired her desire to serve as a shliha. On the other hand, after her post-high school army service, Shalev had studied television and film production; now, having worked with youngsters in the United States, she has decided to go back to college — to become a teacher. “I want to work with children of all ages,” she said as she paused to return a hug from a passing camper.
After finishing her first contract in 2010 with what was then the Jewish Federation of Central NJ (now part of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ), Shalev was invited by the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island to serve as its first shliha, based in Providence. It was a very different proposition from the Central community, she said. Given the smaller size of the RI community, it proved far easier to get to know people — and to get known. “Every time I went to the supermarket, I’d see someone I knew,” she said. “They’d be calling out, ‘Shalom, boker tov!’” — “Hello, good morning!”
But she had also forged strong bonds with the Jewish community in Union County. At the end of the RI contract, she came back to the Y in the summer of 2011, as a senior camp counselor, before finally returning to Israel last September. She went to work for JAFI in Jerusalem in its shlihim orientation program. The Israelis are well educated about America, she said, but she was able to guide the trainees on what they need to know about their own country, so as to be better equipped to educate members of their host communities.
Two days a week over a four-month period, she and a fellow trainer — also a former shliha — had their group visit cultural and historic sites, like The Israel Museum and Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People. They also took their trainees to Yerucham, a development community in the Negev that is partnered with a Jewish federation in the United States. “We wanted them to learn about the things that we felt we were missing when we came to the U.S.,” she said. “It was fun for me too. I loved going to all those places.”
Back in New Jersey, Shalev has comfortably settled in with one of her host families from her year here, Marvin and Lynn Rosensweig of Hillside, who have welcomed her as warmly as before. The current local shliha, Natalie Elgrabli, was also delighted to have her around. “It’s been great having someone else who knows the ropes, and who can also help lead activities,” she told NJ Jewish News soon after camp began. That help became even more valuable when Elgrabli left to participate in a JAFI mission to Ukraine. Shalev stepped in as supervisor for the Israeli counselors.
Shalev was full of praise for her successor. “Natalie is really a wonderful person,” she said. “The community has been really lucky to have her.” It is evident that the community felt the same way about Shalev.