18 January 2024
The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is pleased to welcome Avia Halevi to our professional team as our new Educational Engagement Shlicha (Israeli emissary). We sat down with Avia to learn more about her background and what she’s looking forward to accomplishing in her new role.
Tell us about your background and growing up in Israel?
I was born in Rosh Ha-Ayin to a traditional Yemenite family. Yemeni music, food, and literature are a big part of my identity. Growing up, I was a counselor at the B’nei Akiva youth movement, and a tour guide at another outdoor youth movement of Shelach. I went to art school and got my BA in culture studies and production. After graduation, I volunteered for a service year at an absorption center, working with Olim (immigrants) from Ethiopia. I served in the IDF Air Force as an NCO traffic controller, and currently serve as an active reservist. After my service, I moved to Ethiopia to live with the Jewish community in Gondar for several months. I continued to travel throughout Africa, North and South America, and India, where I joined the staff of a retreat center intended for Israeli travelers. Today, I’m an artist. I explore all kinds of arts and crafts like painting, weaving, and graphic design. I had a small pottery business and used to teach classes before starting my job as a shlicha.
How has your traveling experience enriched your identity?
I spent two years traveling the world and getting to know people from different backgrounds and cultures. I feel like I picked up something from every country I visited, and those little things became part of my identity and helped me understand who I wanted to become. Traveling alone around the world (yet never lonely) has taught me so much about myself and others. I learned to be independent, to trust others, and to listen to my inner voice guiding me in the world. These experiences challenged me to find ways to use the tools I was given, like art, curiosity, and creativity.
What encouraged you to take on the role of Educational Engagement Shlicha at The Jewish Federation?
While traveling around the world, I discovered different ways of communicating and how to build a community. I learned that education, even (or especially) when not formal, is critical for the building and success of families and communities. I discovered many different educational methods that I had never come across before. I understood that through empowerment and diversity, regardless of shared languages or similar backgrounds, a stronger community is formed. I experienced this firsthand when living in Ethiopia. I asked a woman in a nearby village to teach me how to weave a basket and, even though we didn’t speak each other’s language, I was able to learn from her and from other local women who joined us. A local group of weavers formed and I felt part of the group, like I belonged, and I even noticed that the Ethiopian method of weaving is very similar to the Yemenite method I learned from my grandmother. I saw how tribalism and the joint creation of arts and crafts can lead to a better community.
Tell us about some of your past experiences and how they prepared you for this role?
When I returned to Israel, I wanted to continue surrounding myself with the two things I was looking for the most – community and traditional arts. That’s how I found myself in Yerucham, a small town in the Negev (Israel’s southern desert). There, I was part of the first class of Kulna, a school that offers a different kind of academic experience. Kulna brings together the worlds I was seeking – tradition and modernity, academia and tribalism, and community and personal journey. Later, I became the marketing director of the academic program in Kulna and enjoyed sharing the special values and charming atmosphere of the program with so many people. Ever since I was a teenager I have been working with people in various organizations and leadership roles, so this was no different. I am excited to bring the special qualities of Kulna to the community in the Greater Washington area with Federation’s “Hands-on Israel” program where our shlichim (Israeli emissaries) share about their culture and provide an enriching learning experience showcasing what Israel and being Israeli means to them.
Did the terror attacks of October 7th impact the way you see your role as a cultural emissary here in Greater Washington?
Living through an experience like the October 7th attacks has impacted Israelis in ways that are difficult for others to understand. I view my role as building a bridge between Israelis and Americans so that these communities can understand one another. I believe that even without a common language, people can build community by creating art and culture together. Therefore, I am making it a big part of my job to engage as many communities as possible by using culture and art. Since the war broke out, I noticed how the connection between Jews around the world is strong and extremely significant. I also understand how important it is to teach about complexity, especially around the way that Israel is portrayed and how the same stories are told differently by different people. I realize that a large part of my work is to tell the stories of Israel before and after October 7th, and to commemorate the beautiful people and communities who lost everything.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I believe all the time I have is free time and I choose to do things that are important to me, like my work as an Educational Engagement Shlicha, but when I’m not working, I enjoy hiking, cooking, traveling, creating, meeting new people and listening to their stories, and binging good TV shows (yes, Gilmore Girls counts!).