Blessed Are You Who Gathers the Scattered Am Yisrael – And What About Us? - The Youth Shaliach Program at Bnei Akiva Schools, Toronto Canada
(The article was translated from the original Hebrew).
One of my first memories of the Yeshivat Hesder I studied at, was a coincidental discussion with my study partner about the large number of "chutznikim" (foreign students) in the Yeshiva who all spoke a foreign and strange language. My friend looked at me for a moment, smiled, and explained that he had already overcome his embarrassment. His advice to me was that every time I met a "chutznik" I did not know, I should call them "Josh" and then the rest, he explained, would fall into place.
This story exemplifies, in a nutshell, one of the greatest challenges that Israeli society has to deal with in 2017, the relationship with the Jews in the Diaspora. At best, our superficial acquaintance with "Josh" the American is expressed in one of two stereotypes, which the Israeli press enhances. On the one hand, "Josh" our friend, is rich and lacks nothing. Money flows from his checkbook and wallet. On the other hand, Josh and his children are on a one-way street to assimilation from which there is no return.
As someone who grew up in a typical Israeli family in an almost total Israeli environment and works in the field of education, I felt that too large a segment of the Jewish People was simply unknown to me. In order to deal with my future students, while being at ease with my life philosophy and myself, I felt I needed to give more time to better understand "Josh" who lives outside of Israel. Therefore, in the second year of our marriage, I found myself, together with my wife, participating in the Straus-Amiel shlichim training program, which prepares rabbis and educators for leadership positions around the world.
After hundreds of hours of study, workshops and enrichment, my wife, my one year old daughter and I boarded a flight in August of 2013, headed for Venezuela, to work in the community school. For a variety of reasons we decided to end our contract after our first year and continue to a new destination, where a new challenge could be found. Thank God, in August 2014 we embarked on a new shlichut to the Bnei Akiva School in Toronto, Canada.
For the duration of our shlichut, we decided to share our experiences as Israeli shlichim and as a result we had many lively discussions with our family and friends. One of the most interesting responses we got was from Rav Dr. Yehuda Brandes, a prominent Israeli educator and rabbi, who replied to one of our updates thus: "From what you have written I can conclude that it is no less important to bring Israelis to the Diaspora than it is to bring Jews from the Diaspora to Israel on programs like Taglit, so that Israelis can also understand and learn a little from what goes on outside of Israel. "
Time passed and that same year, we were informed of the appointment of Rav Brandes as Head of Herzog College in the Etzion Bloc, which trains thousands of students to be educators and teachers. This time it was my chance to write a short email to Rav Brandes: "Dear Rav Brandes. Congratulations on your new position! It seems that the ball is now in your court…" Rav Brandes did not hesitate and we arranged a meeting in Israel to discuss and promote the joint youth shaliach program of Herzog College and Bnei Akiva Yeshivot in Toronto.
The structure of the current program includes four young Shlichim, who come to Canada for one of the two academic semesters of a year. The Shlichim, education students towards the end of their degrees, are integrated into the school as teachers, youth leaders, educators and ‘big brothers’.
In discussions we have with this style of Shlichim, we hear, over and over, about the new names and appearances "Josh" takes on and about the understanding that Jewish communities in the Diaspora are our own flesh and blood and the need to learn about them and get to know them better.
Our working premise is that when learning about Jews in the Diaspora Israeli students cannot only learn about the Aliya of Ethiopians or Yemenites to Israel, the Third Aliya and the transit camps but also needs to understand the different streams of Judaism in North America, their relative strengths, the specific challenges South American Jewry faces and the unclear future of European Jewry. Our firm belief is that the best way to the heart and head of these students is through a direct meeting of future teachers with Diaspora Jewry as part of their training.
An integral component of the shlichut of these younger shlichim is their continued professional training as a central part of their day.
We believe, with all our heart, that a teacher that learns better - teaches better and we therefore insist on three fundamental cornerstones:
- "Israeli" training: During the course of the shlichut, the students remain in continual contact with their teachers and lecturers in Israel through online courses, seminars and submitting practical work reports.
- "Canadian" training: Within the framework of the school, resources are allocated to educate the shlichim. Experienced teachers give the shlichim guidance in preparing their lessons and critique them; they also attend professional seminars and have personal mentorship meetings.
- "Social" training: A weekly meeting of all the shlichim takes place to discuss educational issues that have arisen from their work. One of the more experienced members of staff leads the meeting but the focus is on the shlichim themselves.
The impact of the Young Shlichim on the schools and the students has been significant and surpassed our expectations. The first and most important level of the shlichim's work is that they serve as role models for our students with regards to Torah, Mitzvot and connection to Israel and idealism. Additionally, they bring into the school a strong and authentic Israeli atmosphere. This is done through programming, formal and informal classes, and even through their cultural interests. These relationships have not been limited to the Shlichim’s time in Canada alone, rather extend to their return to Israel as well. They maintain the relationship through social media as well as meeting up and hosting students for Shabbatot and other get togethers when students come on visits or to Yeshiva and Seminary.
I began with the story of "Josh" and I will conclude with the story of "Ariel". I studied at Yeshiva High School with a student whose parents made Aliya from South America. He received all the help that the system owed him on paper; adjustments to his matriculation exams, Hebrew ulpan, individual assistance etc. Two years ago I visited Ariel's homeland and was exposed to the community from where he came and the long road (both figuratively and literally) he had to travel to come live in Israel. I have since asked my teachers from those days why we had never heard the amazing story of Ariel and his family's Aliya. How was it that we knew nothing of these outstanding people who were living amongst us here and now?
If as a result of the program for young shlichim, my children hear one story about a new immigrant in their own schools in Israel – that in itself will be reward for me.
Aviad Pituchey-Chotam is a graduate of Herzog College, Shaliach educator at the Bnei Akiva Schools in Toronto, Canada and coordinator of the Herzog College Youth Shaliach Program.