“The mission of the shaliach never ends. Even when you retire, it’s always there, part of who you are.” Those were Natan Sharansky’s words at one of the conferences that the Jewish Agency for Israel organized for its shlichim, its Israeli emissaries, to celebrate with him for the upcoming completion of his time as the organization’s chairman.
Now, Sharansky’s selection for the Israel Prize (the state’s highest cultural honor), which he was scheduled to receive on April 19 for Israel’s 70th Independence Day, is an acknowledgment of the indispensable work he and the Jewish Agency are doing in keeping Diaspora Jews connected to the land of Israel — a piece of their history.
Before becoming the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at the Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, I never got to delve into my own aliyah story.
My whole life, since I was 2, I grew up in Israel and was raised among Israelis. Even though I used my mother tongue of Russian at home and mostly interacted with a culture, circle of friends and community that were all Russian, I never even once got to stop and actually understand what it all means to me.
For me, being a Russian-born Israeli Jew was natural and even obvious. Meeting Sharansky for the first time was akin to meeting the men who fought and sacrificed so much to allow me to feel that way.
Sharansky was a well-known name around my house, so when I actually got to meet him, I felt proud — proud to take part in his dream and vision during my shlichut, or “emissary work.” I am one of 77 Israel fellows serving 150 campuses around the world. In 2016-17 alone, the fellows had one-on-one interactions with 17,000 Jewish students and attracted more than 37,000 students to Israel-education events. The Israel fellows are the face of shlichut on campus, as part of the Jewish Agency’s network of more than 2,000 emissaries worldwide. Sharansky’s vision has come to life.
Every day, I am driven to find a way to connect students to the land of Israel and to their identity even when there are struggles and challenges. I have learned that the biggest challenge among young Jews on campus is apathy. They don’t know who they are, so they don’t feel a sense of belonging and don’t see any reason to support or even connect themselves to a distant land that only causes them trouble.
With Sharansky’s reminder to never give up, because if there’s a will, there’s a way, I kept reaching out to these students and made them face their fears. Together, step by step, we have dealt with the difficult questions about who we are and how we are connected to our ancestors and the land of Israel. After much uncertainty, those students became leaders who were able to share their stories with others, and together we kept bringing Israel to different parts of campus.
I’ve learned from Sharansky to be patient — especially with people, to guide each person and help him arrive at his own answers by asking the right questions.
Theodor Herzl said at the First Zionist Congress that “Zionism is returning to Judaism before returning to the land of Israel.” As a shlicha, I meet with many Jewish students who struggle with their Jewish identity, something I relate to. By asking them the right questions, I help both the students and myself attain some of the answers we are looking for. In my job, Israel plays an important role in shaping Jewish identity, because it gives students something tangible to lean on, explore and connect to their past.
Students come to Israel asking who they are, but they leave asking what connection they want with this part of who they are. In order to start talking to students about Israel, they need to have their own experience first.
Only after stepping outside of my own comfort zone was I able to clearly see the importance of the work of the shlichim and the Jewish Agency. If we stop teaching the young Jewish population in the Diaspora to ask difficult questions about their identity and their connection to the land of Israel, in 70 years from now Israel will be isolated or, even worse, young Diaspora Jews will be isolated.
The mission of shlichut lasts for life. When my time in Pittsburgh is complete, I plan to bring back to Israel all that I have learned and find a way to keep the education going, but among my people and in my land.
For me, Sharansky symbolizes the continuity of Herzl’s way. He made his dream come true thanks to a strong will, and that’s exactly what pushes me forward — a strong will. PJC
Elina Lipov is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel, The Herman and Helen Lipsitz Israel Fellowship.