Yisca Shalev was eager to get “home” to New Jersey after her recent visit to her real home, Israel. The Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey community has been her temporary base this past year, while she served as Israeli shliha — or emissary — to the community.
“Everyone was so warm and welcoming, I felt this is my home,” Shalev told NJ Jewish News. “It was an amazing experience — far more amazing than I ever expected or imagined it would be.”
The emissary program, run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, is designed to give Jews in the Diaspora a personal sense of Israel, its culture, geography, and history. Shalev was the fourth young Israeli to come to the community under the program — the fifth one, Abir Maliyanker, is arriving as Shalev leaves — and it has clearly worked that way with each one of them. What is just as clear is that they get just as warm a feeling about Jews in the Diaspora.
Shalev’s one-year contract has just ended, and her return to Central was brief. On Sept. 12 she started a new position — as emissary to the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, based in Portland.
To the frustration of her local hosts, the farewell celebration they had planned for her on Sept. 7 had to be cancelled when she faced a possible delay in leaving Israel. As it happened, she was able to return last Monday after all — but the goodbyes and thank-yous happened without the intended fanfare.
Jessica Mehlman, Central federation’s assistant director of financial resource development, supervised the hectic schedule that had Shalev teaching and organizing events at day schools, synagogue religious schools, the Hebrew Club at Rutgers Hillel, at Kean University, and at the JCC of Central NJ in Scotch Plains, and the YM-YWHA of Union County. She also oversaw the activities of the seven Israelis who served as camp counselors at both centers during the summer, and in the spring escorted a Birthright Israel student group to Israel.
Mehlman said, “Yisca has truly been a joy to have in our community this past year. Each shaliah that we have been fortunate to have in our community has brought their own personal style to the work they do and have been able to advance the position accomplishing more and more. Yisca is no exception. She leaves very big shoes for Abir to fill, but I am confident that he will also do a wonderful job bringing Israel to Central New Jersey.”
‘Dynamic and creative’
Linda Poleyeff, director of Jewish education for the federation, said, “We’re very fortunate to have had Yisca as our shliha. With her extreme warmth and contagious smile, she very successfully transmitted her love and knowledge of Israel and Jewish culture to all. She was a great asset to the community and to our federation staff.”
Jani Jonas, program director of the Union Y, described Shalev as “dynamic and creative,” and said she organized the summer shlihim so well, “we had the most successful camp experience ever.”
Shalev herself was hard-pressed to say which aspect of her year was most meaningful to her. “Each part was different. Maybe the most important was working with the children in the religious schools because they don’t get so much teaching about Israel, and they were very eager to hear everything I could tell them,” she said.
“On the other hand, the students at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth have more knowledge of Israel, but they also made me feel so welcome. It was great, because this next generation will be deciding very important things.”
The social contact was a big part of her pleasure. One of her host families, Lara and Shimon Itzaki of Elizabeth, have just made aliya to Israel — a return home for Shimon — and she visited with them when she was there in August. She said the friendship will last into the future, as will her connection with her other hosts, Sharon and Ron Rockman of Scotch Plains. Many other friendships were forged. “Every Shabbat, I was with a family,” Shalev said.
Ultimately, of course, her goal was to grow the bond between Jews here and her home country. In her summary of her year, she wrote: “I came to bring my experience of Israel to as many people who were interested to learn and experience Israel for themselves.
“Israel is not only mine and doesn’t only belong to those who were born there, but belongs to the entire Jewish people, and there is always a place for every one of you there.”