Bringing an Israeli mood to local celebrations
With Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut coming up, following closely on Yom Hashoa, Israeli emissary Abir Maliyanker was busier than ever through the first half of April.
In addition to his educational and cultural programs at temples, schools, and community centers, he has been organizing the Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day events.
“In Israel, the ceremonies are part of the atmosphere,” said Maliyanker, the shaliah, or Israel emissary, of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. “Here, we create the atmosphere through the ceremonies.”
Working with him are members of the Israeli Club of Springfield, a community of expatriate Israelis who share his feeling for these days.
Both events will take place at the YM-YWHA of Union County. Yom Hazikaron, which honors all those who have lost their lives in Israel’s wars and the ongoing effort to defend itself, will be marked with a program on Sunday, May 8, at 6:45 p.m.
Maliyanker said the ceremony will focus on fallen soldiers from Arad. He comes from the Negev town paired with the federation through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program, so these were people of deep significance for him and by association, for the Central community.
In Israel, the solemn, very quiet day of mourning gives way in the evening to Yom Ha’atzmaut, the boisterous, festive day of celebration marking the anniversary of the country’s founding. At the Y in Union, the “birthday” program will take place on Tuesday, May 10, with a fair starting at 5:45 p.m.
Maliyanker was planning to take a brief breather before all this — a two-week trip to Guatemala, to get in some of the hiking and backpacking he loves. That meant having everything ready before his departure.
He is the fifth shaliah to take up the year-long posting, selected and supervised by the Jewish Agency for Israel. His predecessors all found Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut tough times — both because they made them feel very far from home, and because of the struggle to recreate them here.
An upbeat extrovert with plenty of experience in communication from his time in the army and working with children in Israel, Maliyanker was unfazed, but he said he knew what they meant. “It’s pretty challenging to organize these programs,” he said. “You want to be part of it yourself, but you’re also in charge. I really want to give families the feeling of what happens in Israel.”
‘Glad and grateful’
Eight months into his stay in New Jersey, he has found the experience fascinating and surprising. “I’m very glad and grateful for this experience,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to keep up your Jewish identity outside of Israel, and I’ve learned not to take that identity for granted, the way we do in Israel.”
Perhaps the most intriguing part has been dealing with the different denominations and varying levels of observance. One Friday night, he might find himself enjoying Shabbat with a Reform family in Westfield; the next he is likely to be sharing a kosher dinner with an Orthodox family in Elizabeth. His classes take in a similar range.
He is secular himself, but from an observant, traditional family, and that, he said, has equipped him well. “I have both sides in me,” he said. “My family is observant, but also liberal.”
As shaliah, he needs to do things differently with the different groups — adults as well as children — adapting to the level of knowledge, of Hebrew, of Israel, and so on. He compiles different materials to celebrate festivals like Hanukka, or Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, depending on where he is teaching, even if it is at community centers like the Y or the JCC in Scotch Plains.
On the other hand, he had no exposure to the issues that may arise in a place where one chooses whether or not to live as a Jew. “I didn’t even know about cheeseburgers until I was 15,” he said with a laugh. “Here they are a big issue.” What is more, Jewish life here is set against a background that is generally Christian. “At Christmas here, you feel very different than in Israel,” he said.
For the Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut events, which are supported by the federation and private donors as well as the Y, he is planning programs with the whole Jewish community in mind, and for all ages.
And after those events, from May 11 to 15, he will offer more Israel-focused activities at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains.