Meet Local Heroes Rotem Ur and Idan Sharon, two of Federation’s Community Shlichim

Life ONline Week 1As a Federation shlicha (Israeli emissary) at Shaare Torah synagogue, most of Rotem Ur’s work required face-to-face, in-person interactions with members of her congregation. She would teach at the early childhood center and religious school. She would lead adult programming and help with services on Shabbat (the sabbath). Most nights, Rotem would even go to a different family’s house for dinner.

“Most of the work [as a shlicha] is about [making] personal connections,” Rotem says.

But when the pandemic forced synagogues to close their buildings and cancel in-person programming, Rotem had to adapt how she engaged her members—and how she went about eating dinner each night.

It was simple enough for her to start stocking her refrigerator and cooking meals in her apartment. But to continue to teach her synagogue members about Judaism and Israel would be more complicated.

“Our role is to be a bridge between Israel and the Jewish community abroad,” Rotem says. She knew that responsibility did not end just because there was a pandemic.

In mid-March, just as everything was shutting down and the world was beginning to pivot, Rotem led the way and concepted the idea for Life: Online, a series of Jewish- and Israeli-themed digital programs and online events. For this project to be most impactful, Rotem knew she couldn’t—or, at least, shouldn’t—do it alone. So, she first reached out to the other Federation shlichim to join her.

“Instead of creating content by myself exclusively for my community, and the other shlichim working by themselves to create programs just for their own communities, I figured it would be best to work together to create opportunities for the whole community,” Rotem says. “At a time when everything is virtual, there’s so much [that is] possible.”

Life: Online quickly became a joint project among local shlichim in the Greater Washington Jewish community—and from other parts of the country as well, including New Hampshire and Nashville. The project has demonstrated the power of collaboration. With more shlichim participating, they could offer a greater variety of programs and attract more people to each one.

As of July 24, Life: Online has had approximately 4,400 participants in its programs, which span from Israeli cooking classes and Hebrew lessons to Shabbat services and Israeli holiday celebrations.

One of Rotem’s main collaborators is Idan Sharon, a second-year Federation shaliach at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation. Idan, who had been teaching Hebrew online through his synagogue, was familiar with facilitating programs on the internet. He also manages the Life: Online Facebook group, where people learn about upcoming events.

Even before the pandemic, the local shlichim were accustomed to working together. They would meet weekly at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s offices under the support and mentorship of Federation’s Senior Shlicha, Noa Ohayon Bab, and discuss program ideas, strategies for engaging their congregations, and more.

“Federation took me from a lonely shaliach and brought me into a group,” Idan says.

Not only did Life: Online enhance the ability of the shlichim to collaborate, but it also expanded the breadth of the Greater Washington Jewish community and created new connections within it that hadn’t existed before.

Before the pandemic, most of the participants in Rotem and Idan’s programs were from their own synagogues. But now, individuals from synagogues throughout Maryland, DC, and Northern Virginia join them regularly. They have also had participants from as far away as New Jersey, Florida, San Francisco, and even Poland.

“We feel like we should be doing things for the greater DMV community,” Rotem says. “It’s the perfect opportunity to offer this project to everyone.”

During a time when people are stuck at their homes, this ability to meet familiar friends and new faces online has been a tremendous comfort for individuals in our community.

“This project gives content for people looking for something to do or who have [only a little bit of time] and want something else in their daily routine,” Rotem says. “These times are lonely. Seeing the community and feeling that togetherness … that’s the whole reason for it.”

Rotem and Idan say that participants have been tremendously grateful for the opportunity to learn and connect with other people.

“My community knows that I’m here for them,” Idan says. “I hope they take comfort in knowing the shlichim are doing something on their behalf during this hard time. I take comfort knowing they’re also here for me.”

There’s something incredibly comforting in knowing there’s somebody who’s doing something for you, especially during this hard time.”

Fostering a community has been a vital benefit for Life: Online participants. And it has also served as a crucial component of daily life for the shlichim who organize the programs. According to Rotem and Idan, the shlichim were already at greater risk of loneliness, even before the pandemic. Though the work is rewarding, being a shaliach requires leaving their homes, their friends, and their families, and coming to a country where they don’t know anyone and often live by themselves. Cultivating a community through Life: Online has helped the shlichim cope during these unusually difficult times.

“My community [Shaare Torah] is definitely the best there is—they call to see how I’m doing; bring me puzzles, flowers, and food; and offer support in all the important ways,” Rotem says. “Life: Online just made it possible for us to reach out more and be able to see a larger community being created. It’s hard at times to be so disconnected, and this project helps us feel a part of something bigger.”

Idan says that a member from his congregation recently drove to his apartment during the pandemic and brought him some vegan cookies. During a time when he and the other shlichim were doing so much for their congregants, it was nice to be reminded of how much they receive from those they serve in return.

“Our community is the closest thing we have to people who know us in America,” Idan says. “The acceptance and warmth of the community is incredible, just incredible.”

The Jewish Federation’s Shlichim Program brings young Israeli emissaries—hand-picked from different parts of Israeli society and with diverse professional backgrounds—to local congregations and schools to transform how more than 25,000 congregants and students connect to Israel and Israelis. Check out the upcoming Life: Online programs by signing up for the mailing list or liking the Facebook group.