Eighteen years after beginning his first tour of duty as executive shaliah at what was then the Jewish Federation of MetroWest NJ, Amir Shacham is back in his old office on the Aidekman Family Campus in Whippany. Since returning home in 1998, Shacham has been running the federation’s office in Jerusalem.
This time, he will stay for two years, aiming to strengthen ties between his native Israel and a younger generation of Jews represented by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.
“The old way of doing things is not relevant anymore,” Shacham said.
Between 1995 and 1998, when he forged ties between the Jews in Israel and New Jersey, the job was a lot easier.
“The old generation who was connected to the community, and connected to their Jewish identity, and connected to Israel, automatically is aging or dying and the next generation and the third generation are more challenging. They don’t have anything built in,” he said. “We need to work hard in order for them to connect to all the values and things that we do.”
Suburban Jews now in their 30s and 40s “were born into a culture that is different than their parents and grandparents,” he said. “They are assimilated in culture, which brought them to believe that they don’t need to work as hard about their Jewish identity or the Jewish people’s connections and Israel.”
Shacham said that belief “is an illusion. You might be a great person, a successful person, a great American, and a great Jew, but if you lose your connection to Jews who are living outside of your neighborhood or your country, you are not a complete person.”
He plans to convey that message “to one Jew at a time by getting them into any of our programs or experiences that we provide.”
In recent weeks, as director of the federation’s Israel operations, he took a group of 30- and 40-something New Jerseyans to visit an elite Israel Defense Forces unit, meet with members of Israel’s Ethiopian community, and tour the vulnerable Kibbutz Erez on the border of Gaza.
Missions to Israel are just one part of strengthening bonds, said Shacham. Recently, he was one of 15 people from Greater MetroWest who visited Cherkassy and Odessa in the Ukraine.
In Cherkassy, a federation partnership city, “we saw how this small community — 7,000 Jews — is trying to survive by working on their community. Through our support during the last 15 years we helped them survive,” he said. “The people on the mission who were new to such trips now understand the power of a community, a collective, in order to save other communities. This is amazing.”
Closer to home, he spent a day on the Jersey shore, joining a team of Israelis and Americans to rebuild a home in Union Beach that was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. “The group of 20 worked for a week to reconstruct the home from scratch. What we did for each other is no less important than what we did for the family whose house we rebuilt,” he said.
“And I need a vacation,” he joked.
It is a time of transition, not just for Shacham but for the federation’s entire Israel Program Center.
Moshe Levi, a Jerusalem native, will spend the next two to three years as the community shaliah, or Israel emissary (see separate story).
Noga Maliniak, who Shacham succeeds as Greater MetroWest’s executive shaliah, returned to Israel in early August to serve as the director of the federation’s Ness Fund, an endowment that supports economic development in Israel’s Negev region.
Michal Zur, a former youth shliha in Whippany, is working out of the Jerusalem office on youth and educational activities.
And Rozi Ben Ami, the youth and young adult shliha, starting her second year, will be working in the Elizabeth and Scotch Plains area.
On a personal level, Shacham made some adjustments in order to devote more time to his work. Having heard that traffic problems in the Whippany area have worsened during his absence, Shacham has moved into The Grande at Hanover, a townhouse complex just across Route 10 from the Aidekman campus. “It allows me to walk to work,” he said.
He will be joined after Rosh Hashana by his wife, Vered, a social worker who will be a part-time employee of the Jewish Agency for Israel, coordinating “Rishonim” programs for young Israeli emissaries in North America. His sons, ages 27 and 24, both attend university — one at a medical school in Budapest, the other in engineering school at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva.
Shacham called his return to Whippany “a very strange situation. I have been back here so many times but this time it is different. I am not here just for a visit and then going back home. This is my second home. I feel overwhelmed because I am sitting at the same desk, but the community is different. People are different. I am different. I have to collect my experiences and my knowledge and utilize them in order to renew my job description and the way I am now working. That is my goal.”