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Opinion

Talk is never cheap

Back in Israel, a former shaliach longs for the meaningful discussions at Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life

It’s now been more than four months since I’ve returned from my shlichut, emissary work, as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Princeton University. Yet it feels like even less time.

Part of the process of being a returning shaliach is to reflect on the time abroad and on the “new person” who landed at Ben-Gurion Airport back home in Israel.

Though it wasn’t my first visit to the U.S., nor my first time meeting Jewish communities, shlichut was the first time I had the opportunity to dive deep into the issues that concern the Jewish people, Israelis, and others. This ranged from politics (I thought the Israeli election was “fun” until America showed me how it’s really done) to religion, identity, cultures, and many more big-picture topics that occupied my time. I lived the reality of the intersection between the two epicenters of Judaism today and I embraced every moment of it, even though at times it was turbulent, to say the least.

But coming back to Israel, I suddenly felt a vacuum; no longer do I chat, act, and listen to subjects that are the fundamentals of my identity because I don’t need to. I’m back to the comfort of home, reading Israeli media reports, and focusing on the local problems that we have in
abundance.

You live in Israel as an Israeli Jew, no matter what you do and what you practice. It’s just a fact of life. My bustling Jewish community in New Jersey that weighed in on topics such as Judaism, morals, and Zionism has been replaced by family chats about politics, careers, and grandchildren. My smartphone-free oneg Shabbat conversations have been replaced by happy hours with friends in Tel Aviv with the everlasting discussion topic of “What now?”

During one of those recent nights with friends in Tel Aviv, the shlichut I left behind returned as I heard a familiar language — English, with some broken Israeli jargon only the Birthright Israel Program can teach. Ah yes, a group of young Jews who thought this was going to be a fun night out until they ran into a returning shaliach who was eager to bring back some old memories and discussions. Minutes into our conversation, the discussion moved toward thought-provoking questions like, what are you going to do when you get back from your Birthright trip? Do you know about the Hillel on your campus? How do you feel about the relationship between the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora?

This thirst for meaningful dialogue is now part of my DNA as one of the hundreds of Jewish Agency shlichim who return home to Israel each year after serving in the Jewish diaspora, undergoing transformative professional and personal experiences and returning home infused with motivation to influence Israeli society and Israel-diaspora relations.

When the Jewish Agency calls, I answer. I recently attended the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA) held last month in Tel Aviv. There was no way I’d miss the chance to talk about topics that became the closest to my heart.

The 2018 GA was different than other conferences I’ve attended. You could see it in the conference’s tagline — “We need to talk” — or by looking at the different sessions and speaking to the participants. I took part in a dialogue session in a huge hall with more than 30 roundtables, and took a seat at a table with unfamiliar faces of all ages from Russia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the U.S., and Israel. There was no hierarchy and our conversations were fast-moving and free-flowing. Each of us had a story to tell, an experience to share, and a chance to support an opinion or belief; our discourse was respectful and harmonious. We concluded by articulating what we wished to fix, and it was obvious to all that we needed to bring our lessons back home with us wherever we live.

That dialogue at the GA was the perfect microcosm of my shlichut. As shlichim who return to Israel, we must carry something back with us that informs our communities. We need to face a reality that some of the issues which stand between diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews don’t resonate for Israelis, or on the flipside, Jewish communities abroad can’t fully comprehend the challenges facing Israelis. But we can at least try.

Soon after the GA, the entire Jewish community was struck by tragedy when a gunman murdered 11 people during a Shabbat prayer service in Pittsburgh. This stunned returning shlichim especially because for years, a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow has served in Pittsburgh.

Amidst the grief, it was remarkable to see the solidarity in Israel — the humane gestures and how shlichim stepped up in many ways to show their support for Pittsburgh. In times like these, it’s even more important for the Jewish communities in Israel, the U.S., and around the world to stand united — to denounce, speak, educate, and show we are not afraid.

Unfortunately, we keep seeing cases of anti-Semitism on college campuses in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. If we wish to overcome the anti-Semitism challenge and others, we will need to put our disagreements aside and support each other like the large family we are, whether it’s a tragedy in Pittsburgh, Sderot, or anywhere else. We must fight the darkness together.

Lior Sharir is an advertising, marketing, and PR professional based in Tel Aviv. He is the former Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at the Center for Jewish Life-Princeton Hillel.

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