Shlichim in America: Building a More Connected Global Jewish Community

 

A reflection from Miri Bernovsky Tibon, Federation’s outgoing shlicha

MIRI BERNOVKY TIBONBefore many shlichim (Israeli emissaries) begin their jobs as educators in synagogues across the United States, we feel both excited and anxious. We are excited about the opportunity to spend time abroad and teach Americans about Israel. But we are also anxious about leaving behind our homes, our families and friends, and our communities.

My work as a shlicha for Agudas Achim congregation in Alexandria, VA, began in the summer of 2017 and ended several weeks ago. Even though I was coming to work in the United States together with my husband, who was beginning a post as the Washington, DC, correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, I still had the same feelings that most of my colleagues experience—a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

But after my three years at Agudas, I know that I also have a home and a community in America, and always will. As my family prepares to return to Israel at the end of the summer, the connections I made with Americans throughout my shlichut will be coming with me, strengthening the bonds that tie Israel and the United States together.

When I first started as a shlicha, I thought I would lean most heavily on my experience as an educator. I knew I would be planning events, organizing programs, and teaching courses. But I was surprised at how often I relied on my academic and professional training as a social worker. From one-on-one conversations with congregants about personal matters to group discussions where people chose to share deeply intimate feelings and experiences, much of my job seemed more therapeutic than educational.

After the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA, I helped facilitate community conversations, where people expressed how shaken they were by what happened. On this subject in particular, I knew that my experience as an Israeli could be beneficial to my American friends, because before we moved to Alexandria, my husband and I lived for three years in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the closest place in Israel to the Gaza Strip. I understood what it was like to live under the fear of threat, to have a place feel both inviting and insecure. By gathering as a community to share our emotions, we were able to focus on our resilience as a people while still acknowledging our fears as individuals.

There is so much that the Israeli and American communities can learn from one another. As a starting point, my primary goal as a shlicha was to help my congregants feel some kind of connection with the state of Israel, regardless of their political leanings or levels of observance. I never shied away from discussing tough issues and uncomfortable topics, but my main goal was to get people to feel an emotional connection.

The highlight of my work as a shlicha was organizing and leading, together with Rabbi Steven Rein of Agudas, a congregational trip to Israel in December 2018. We had 20 members of the community join us for a 10-day tour. Since many people on the trip had already been to Israel, we had to create a unique itinerary that took them off the beaten path, to places in Israel that tourists and groups usually don’t get to see.

We took the group to meet Israeli activists and organizations fighting for social justice and religious pluralism as well as institutions caring for those with special needs. We visited a dual-lingual school for Arab and Jewish children, heard from Israeli journalists on the front line of the fight for democracy, and got a special tour of Israel’s northern border from a retired IDF general.

My favorite part of the trip was when we visited Nahal Oz, my kibbutz. The Agudas members learned about life so close to the border with Gaza, expanding their perspective on what it means to be an Israeli. But for me personally, this was the moment my two communities—one in Israel, one in America—finally got to meet each other. My Agudas family saw my vegetable garden and the place my husband and I got married. They spoke to my neighbors and friends in Israel, saw my old home, and got a better understanding of my perspective on life in Israel.

Again, the depth and strength of my sense of community was fostered by personal conversations. For so much of my shlichut, my Agudas family shared personal stories and intimate revelations, bringing me more and more into their lives. Visiting my home in Israel, I was able to share even more of myself with them and feel even more immersed in this community thousands of miles away from where I grew up.

My everlasting connection to the Agudas and Greater Washington Jewish community was cemented in the final months of my shlichut, when I had my first child. I had to be hospitalized toward the end of my pregnancy, and members of Agudas started bringing us home-cooked meals every day and volunteering to run errands for us. With our families thousands of miles away, and a global pandemic stopping them from flying to be with us, we discovered the importance of our “local family” here in America—the synagogue community.

When my healthy baby girl was born in the middle of the pandemic, we had a naming ceremony for her over Zoom, led by Rabbi Rein. More than 250 people joined from all over the world, including relatives and friends in Israel and Russia and many from the Agudas community in Northern Virginia. At one point, everyone on the Zoom call tried to recite a blessing for my family in unison. The blessing was mostly unintelligible as everyone’s speech was jumbled and staggered. But it was still a beautiful moment. Even out of sync, it was so wonderful to hear the noise of a community gathered together on our behalf.

It astounds me that, even as an Israeli, I can feel like such a part of this community in the United States. But of course, it’s not surprising at all. Agudas and the Greater Washington Jewish community are made up of people with many difference political viewpoints, religious practices, and even purposes for belonging to a synagogue—some come for the services, others for the educational programming. But despite its diversity, it truly is one cohesive community that supports each individual person, especially during their time of need, like my family experienced.

This is the lesson I want to take back with me to Israel: no matter our differences, and no matter how many miles separate us, Israel and America can still feel like one united community.