Soon after she arrived in New Jersey from Israel, Natalie Elgrabli was talking on her cellphone in Hebrew in the elevator of her apartment building in Elizabeth.
“I’m Jewish too,” said an elderly man who shared the elevator, and the two began a warm conversation.
The connection pleased her — and underlined an isolation she never knew, having lived in Israel all her life. “Being Jewish isn’t something you think about there,” she said, talking over coffee at the cafe at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains. “But here, if you want to live a Jewish life, it’s something you have to go looking for.”
Elgrabli has been on a steep learning curve. She arrived in late September, just before the High Holy Days, to start her year as the Israeli shliha — or emissary — with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. Every day since has been filled with meeting people, visiting with congregations, and working out how best to fulfill her mission — to strengthen people’s connection with Israel.
A sabra, Elgrabli was born and brought up in Jerusalem in an Orthodox family with Moroccan roots. She served in the army, belonged to a youth group, and earned a degree with a double major at Hebrew University — in history and psychology.
She is fascinated by human dynamics of the past and the present. Between university and her decision to take up the Jewish Agency’s invitation to go abroad as a shliha, she worked as a guide at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. She loved it — dealing with people from all over the world, all with different sensitivities and preconceptions.
“You had to adapt to each one, deciding what to show them and what to emphasize,” she said. She also attributes her fluent English to that experience. “I think it helped that we were talking about such serious things,” she added.
When she returns to Israel next year, she said, she plans to go back to that work, and also to study — possibly child psychology. That intention is being fuelled by the new experience of teaching children of all ages in the Central NJ community. Aside from being with her nieces and nephews, and working one-on-one with children during her psychology internships, she hadn’t worked with kids before. “I love it,” she exclaimed. Her students, she said, have been friendly and receptive, but with widely varying familiarity with Hebrew and Israel.
Working with youngsters at area synagogues, she confronted another contrast between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry. When Gilad Shalit was released in a prisoner exchange last month, Elgrabli asked the students she encountered what they thought of the young soldier’s release after five years in captivity.
She was astounded by their response. “Every one of them said they thought it would make things more dangerous for other soldiers,” she said. “The reaction in Israel was totally different.” Israelis were aware of that risk, she said, but that fear was outweighed by their overwhelming joy he was home. “For us, he is like a brother, a member of our family. The students here were more detached, more analytical about it.”
Though she has also seen the passion with which people in the Central community regard Israel, she wants to engender more of that familial bond. How to do that is a challenge — especially across the spectrum of denominations.
Where her predecessors worked with some very young children, Elgrabli feels she can be most effective with those who are older, with an understanding of what Israel is and a curiosity about it. She is also eager to share whatever she can with adults in the community — whether about Israel’s modern-day relationship to the Holocaust, or about Israeli society — with all its cultural and religious complexities.
As for the feeling of isolation, that is rapidly eroding. She has already formed firm bonds of affections, she said, with her host family, Steve and Sarah Karp and their children, and Adina and Uri Abramov and their children, who are her “back-up hosts.”
While she lives in an apartment of her own provided by the federation, her hosts frequently have her over for meals, take her shopping, and help her explore the region.
Adina Abramov said, “She’s already become a dear friend,” which was pretty much what Elgrabli said about them.