Seven young Israelis have arrived in the United States with an aim to build ties with American Jews and help create the next generation of Jewish leaders.
Participants in the Mekor Chaim Steinsaltz Ambassadors program — for the first time, two women among them — will spend the next year in Jewish day schools, college Hillels, and synagogues throughout New Jersey, as well as in Arizona and Washington, DC.
The New Jersey schools are the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva and Yeshiva Netivot Montessori in Edison.
The Israelis will also conduct youth and holiday programs and study one-on-one with both students and adults at Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick, Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, Young Israel of East Brunswick, and the Jewish Community Youth Foundation of Princeton Mercer Bucks.
The Steinsaltz program’s primary mission is to encourage “Jews to love being Jewish in a deep, natural, and joyous way,” according to its literature.
A secondary goal is to expose the ambassadors, who are generally in their early 20s, to the diversity of American-Jewish life.
The program was inspired by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the Israeli scholar and author best known for his contemporary Hebrew and English translations of the Talmud.
“Rabbi Steinsaltz wants to create leaders, and not necessarily rabbis,” said program director Rabbi Shmuel Greene of Highland Park. “You don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jewish leader.”
Since the program began in 2005, ambassadors have been selected from among students in Steinsaltz’s Mekor Chaim High School in Kfar Etzion and hesder yeshiva in Tekoa, an intense five-year program that combines Israeli army service with advanced Jewish studies. Steinsaltz’s Aleph Society offers non-financial support to the Ambassadors program.
This year for the first time, two young women, who are being sent to Arizona, have been included as “an experiment,” said Greene, “because young Jewish women relate better to other young Jewish women.”
The program’s success has created a demand for ambassadors in a number of communities that, Greene said, simply can’t be met. “We don’t have the manpower. We are sending out a very specific product with a specific goal to expose American Jews to vibrant, passionate, and cohesive Judaism that is based on great Torah.”
The group of seven new ambassadors — along with two others returning for three weeks to acclimate the newcomers — met Aug. 27 with an NJJN reporter in a Highland Park coffeehouse.
Yaakov Shor, one of the two ambassadors assigned to New Jersey, termed their role “a two-way street.” The other NJ ambassador is Avner Segal.
“We are learning about America and the Jewish world,” Shor said. “Rabbi Steinsaltz says if we want to be Jewish leaders we have to know about Jewish life and what American Jews are like. That will help us a lot with our work.”
Chananel Schtachelberg, who was in Washington last year, said that while there is much American Jews can learn from Israel, there are things Israelis can learn from America.
“Here in America you have the family experience in synagogue,” he said. “In Israel we don’t have it.”
Schtachelberg said that Steinsaltz’s main message is for “everybody to feel connected to their Jewish journey.”
“I know people say Judaism is for synagogues,” he said. “It is also for the secular community outside. We want those people to see us and feel Jewish.”
Binyamin Zuckerman, who was in New Jersey last year, said too often people try to focus on too many aspects of Judaism without direction.
“A community has to have a direction of going somewhere,” he said. “We want to help people start dreaming about their goals. I cannot define the goals for Americans because I am an outsider. I can just encourage them to create their own goals for themselves.”