Federation executive departs for Israel

Federation executive departs for Israel

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Amir Shacham, a few days before his departure for Israel.     
Amir Shacham, a few days before his departure for Israel.     

Friday, Jan. 15, marked Amir Shacham’s last (official) day on the Aidekman campus in Whippany. 

By Sunday morning, he and his wife, Vered, were already playing host at their home in Maccabim, near Modi’in, to a delegation of three new Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ professionals. 

Shacham, the GMW’s associate executive vice president of global connections, may have left New Jersey, but he hasn’t stopped working for the federation community. As he has been heard saying, “I’m not leaving. I’m not even relocating. I’m just changing time zones.”

He has been a part of the federation professional staff since 1995, sometimes working as a shaliah, Israeli emissary, in New Jersey and sometimes from Israel. 

It’s ironic that Shacham has embraced the Greater MetroWest community for so much of his career — he nearly chose to work with another federation instead. He recalled being offered his first assignment as a shaliah and having to choose between Pittsburgh and MetroWest. “I couldn’t find MetroWest on a map!” he joked. “I spent the night trying to find out what is this MetroWest thing?” He decided to go for Pittsburgh, which he could find and understand. But a friend called and set him straight, saying, as Shacham recalled, “You’d be stupid if you miss out on MetroWest. It’s one of the best communities in the States.”

As the Greater MetroWest Federation (as it’s been called since MetroWest’s merger with the Jewish Federation of Central NJ in 2012) has put all of its overseas programs together into one division, Global Connections, Shacham has moved from being executive shaliah and running the division formerly known as the Israel Program Center to managing all of the overseas programs. In Whippany, Sandy Green will serve as manager of Global Connections.

Shacham sees the new structure as an experiment, he said in a conversation with NJJN at the Sheraton Parsippany, where he and Vered stayed after vacating their Whippany home. “Can we think creatively about the meaning of community and what geographic borders mean?” The Global Connections structure includes four sections — Yama, Kedma, Tzafona, and Negba — reflecting different geographic categories of projects.

If anyone can do it, he said, Greater MetroWest can. “If Greater MetroWest can create itself without being a real physical place you can locate on a map, that’s a good place to start,” he said. It was created, he said, “from nothing. So it doesn’t matter if we expand overseas, and it doesn’t matter if it’s between two segments of the community, or three, or if there’s a highway or an ocean running through it. It’s obviously just a concept.”

But, he added, in Israel and places like Cherkassy, Ukraine, “there are people who really belong to the Greater MetroWest community. They are part and parcel of this community, even if they don’t physically attend meetings. We call it ‘global belonging.’” And he knows what it takes: “years of encounters, exchanges, invitations, and education, and generations of shlihim and delegations and host families.” 

He does feel he is “swimming against stream,” he said, as Jewish identity issues are having an impact on the entire Jewish community. 

“An older generation connected to the Jewish community and the global Jewish world almost automatically,” he said. But members of younger generations “do not want to be connected or develop a sense of belonging because they don’t feel the need.” That development, he said, is “a threat to the Jewish people as such.” 

Shacham is also sober about the Israel he is returning to.

“We have faced more serious challenges from our enemies at other times. What we face now is internal,” he said. “It’s a clash between various segments of Israel society: the Right and the Left, the settlers and non-settlers, ultra-Orthodox and others, Israeli Arabs and Jews. We see a lot of violence, aggression, hatred, and the like. 

“The major challenge of our time is to create a shared society in Israel — to have all these segments of people in Israel feel that we are one, at least formally,” he said.

Looking back over his time with the Greater MetroWest community, he said, he has gained an appreciation of the American culture of the communal world involving a professional/lay partnership — not only because “so many lay people volunteer to give their time, their money, their entire lives to the community just because it’s their community,” but also because he finds the way professionals work with volunteers “fascinating.” 

He pointed out that Israelis looking at the process would say, “‘Why don’t you get to the bottom line? You need to do and not just talk,’” he said. “We [Israelis] say what’s on our mind, not always what is politically correct.” 

Israelis think the American system is too slow and process-oriented. But he said he has come to see that “in Israel we are maybe too fast,” and perhaps there’s a happy medium merging the two community cultures.

He has also come to understand that “American people do not like to see complexities. They like to see the world in black and white.” Educating the community here about the nuances in Israeli society became part of his role. He takes evident pride in the result, at least in part, of his work: the Greater MetroWest community, for example, has become the only federation involved in advocacy work for religious pluralism in Israel. 

He has no qualms about Americans being involved in social issues in Israel, and he welcomes criticism of Israel’s policies or government actions. “I’d rather see people angry about Israel than indifferent,” he said. 

“For the next generation, my concern is that Israel is too complicated, too difficult, and it’s easier to check out. I’d rather see people critical of this policy or that — as long as they care.” 

 Shacham was looking forward to being reunited with his family in Israel — his two grown sons are in Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv, and, he said, he hopes to see Americans continuing to connect with Jews around the world, and of course, in Israel. 

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