Diaspora "settlers"

Torah MiTzion shlichim leave their secure religious Zionist environments in Israel to cope with challenges of a complex Diaspora reality.

Nitzan Keidar, Nashville,

The young emissaries
The young emissaries
Nitzan Kedar

Nashville, Tennessee is known as "The City of Music," but it is doubtful if anyone in the city's Jewish community knew all the tunes for reciting the Kaballat Shabbat (Friday eve) prayers in the popular Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach style. Inexplicably, this did not prevent any of the worshipers and members of the Shmor Sheerit Israel congregation there to join the choir led by Rabbi Yedidia Newman, head of the Montreal Canada Torah Mitzion Kollel, in spirited singing the Carlebach way.

It was a different and unique meeting between Israelis serving as Torah MiTzion "shlichim" (envoys) and the congregation's members, some of whom have unusual stories about their attachment to Judaism, many of whom have been in Nashville for years. (For information about Torah MiTzion, scroll down to the end of this article.)

Looking back, the Shabbat achieved its goal: Nashville will not forget the families and young men of Torah Mitziion for a long time, but that is not the main thing. The powerful experience will also give more energy to the Bar Or family, the first Torah Mitzion family in Nashville's complex, but unusually united, congregation.

Small but complex

The Nashville community is a relatively rare phenomenon, because the veteran, strong and century old Orthodox congregation Shmor Sheerit Yisrael,, headed by Rabbi Saul Strassberg, works in harmony with the Reform and Conservative congregations.. All Jewish children who wish to attend a day school attend the one and only Jewish school in the city, headed by the Orthodox Rabbi's wife. The rabbi, in his late 30s, has served as spiritual leader for 14 years, and is the halakhic authority for all the congregations on every topic.

"It's a family, all for one and one for all, with no internal political skirmishing," said the rabbi. "Everyone wants to be a good Jew. There are different opinions, of course, but at the end everyone is directed towards G-d. If you keep Shabbat you daven with us, but you might support other congregations. It's possible that your permanent seat is in another synagogue, but you will come to ours for certain activities and certain prayers. There are no arguments here, there is unity."

How does a New York haredi rabbi end up in this kind of community?

"I was interviewed by various types of communities, but when I got here, I knew it was for me. Here people don't just want to learn, they want to grow. It is usual for a congregation to expect the rabbi to expand membership, but here I was asked to try not only to raise the number of members but to also raise them spiritually. There are quite a number of New York yeshivas that do good work in education. Here, however, one can really effect significant change, something that is felt every day. When there is a smallish community, there is an opportunity to have much more influence as well as engage in mutual give and take."

It is hard to summarize the rabbi's activities in a few short sentences. What it is easy to see is that he is a personality whose warmth is felt by everyone. Still, the arrival of the Bar Or family half a year ago as shlichim (envoys, ed.) is a welcome addition to the congregation.

"When push comes to shove, I am the rabbi, and as part of my work I try to take care of all kinds of things – synagogue, school, mikvas, weddings and funerals. Up to now, there was never someone here who was entirely devoted to Torah study, someone to give shiurim (Torah lectures, ed.) and spend his time teaching the different kinds of people here Torah during the day. When they have someone who does all that and also connects the Torah to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, it is immeasurably beneficial."

He explains the value of having the shlichim at his side. "Spiritually, there is an enormous effect on the congregation, in particular on active, involved members who see them studying, see them in the street, meet them at various events. The change is palpable. One family like this can make a great and positive difference in the community."

The Rabbi himself is in the midst of leading a significant innovation. Rabbi Strassberg has established the first Jewish junior high in Nashville, and hopes it will continue on to become a high school. He wants his own children, along with the congregation's youngsters, to be able to continue their Jewish studies on a high level in the city. If not, he will eventually have to move to somewhere with Jewish high school education. The community understands this and is not willing to lose the rabbi and his family.

The rabbi's wife runs the Jewish elementary day school "Akiva." Classes are relatively small, some with five or six pupils, including children from non-Orthodox families. On Friday there is a moving assembly for Kabbalat Shabbat at which the rabbi, who among his many talents teaches music in the school, takes part in the event and accompanies the children singing Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi.

Isn't it harder to run a school which is not large, on the one hand, and very complex on the other?

"One of the things that makes the Akiva school very unique is that the congregation is small, but involvement in it is large. Many of us did not grow up in Nashville, and we are familiar with communities where there are 20 children who attend 20 different schools and synagogues. Here we have one school and everyone is involved and everyone believes in responsibility for one another. Everyone believes that each person must be allowed to have his voice heard and along with what he is taught at home to decide on the approach he wishes to choose."

Aren't you afraid that children will be influenced by different approaches to Judaism?

It is the other way around. The children are very connected to what they see at home. The differences lead to discussions about Jewish topics that would not develop in a regular school and that results in deeper understanding. In the end none of the students compromise on the faith they bring from their parents' homes."

Israelis walk their children in the rain

Shlichim from all over North America came to Nashville for the yearly Shabbaton - a weekend packed with activities that afforded a change of scene for the shlichim but also contributed a great deal to the hosting congregation. The shlichim, singles and families, became part of the community's life for one Shabbat and it seemed as though they had always been there.

Choosing Nashville for the Shabbaton was not a simple decision to make. Torah Mitzion has shlichim in many North American locations, some in large and impressive Orthodox congregations. Nashville is small and its Jewish community is varied, but still, the organization chose to hold the Shabbaton there – and there is an important message behind that decision.

"Israelis talk a lot about the future of the Jewish people but there is also much ignorance about what American Jewry is all about," explains Zev Schwartz, the CEO of Torah Mitzion. "I don't want to get into politics or the halakhic view of the different movements, but we must remember that there are non-Orthodox Jews who are intermarrying and we need to try to prevent that. The anti-Semitic murderer in Pittsburg did not know how to differentiate between different groups of Jews. The very fact that we came to Nashville is a statement about connecting to American Jewry of all kinds. Torah MiTzion can influence them all, something that is not possible in Israel."

What is the significance of having this Shabbaton in Nashville, when it is only a few months since the first Torah MiTzion shaliach arrived in the city?

"Coming to Nashville is making a statement that we are connected to all Jews. Our coming here is the result of accurate reading of the needs of the Jewish people today. Israeli Jewry has a responsibility towards Diaspora Jewry, in actions not only in words. Being a religious-education representative in Jewish congregations the world over means not just saying that we are worried when there is an incident or terror attack. There is so much to do in the Diaspora today, and the more shlichim there are, the more influence they have and the more immigrants to Israel we have. It does away with myths and prejudices.

It was 23 years ago when we launched the first Torah MiTzion kollel in Memphis, Tennessee. It is still going strong. There was a thriving Orthodox congregation there that knew how to appreciate Torah and Torah scholars. Three hours away, in Nashville, there is spiritual thirst. There, the Shmor Sheerit Israel Synagogue (a name which means Guard the Remnants of Israel) in which we were, touched our hearts because it was there that we saw just how much effort must be expended to accomplish what the name of the synagogue means..

What do you think is special about this shlichim conference taking place in a single congregation?.

"This Shabbaton has two objectives: One, to give the shlichim a breather, to replenish their energy and strengthen their motivation, to share experiences. Being together is wonderful and benefits each of the participants. The second objective is to strengthen the host congregation. They understand that it is not just them and their shaliach, but that they are part of a large movement. The shlichim already know that they are part of a great enterprise, and now the congregation has the same feeling."

The Shabbaton in Nashville opens a small window to the larger movement of overseas Torah MiTzion shlichim. Over Shabbat, we meet religious Zionist families and young men who could have been our neighbors anywhere in Israel, but chose to put a hold on their lives there and go out as shlichim for the Diaspora. They bring the values they were taught in Israel's yeshivas and ulpenas, which, while axiomatic to us, are often completely new to the Diaspora congregations to which they are sent.

"Sometimes the shlichim are stigmatized as couples and singles who want to see the world or who are trying to escape from something," says Rabbi Rafael Azougi, head of the Memphis Kollel. "We were living a lovely life and did not lack for anything, good jobs and a good life in Israel. We had significant uncertainties about this move and we went to our Rabbi, the late Rabbi Elisha Vishlitzky, for advice. We analyzed the situation with him for hours, and it is he who gave us the strength to join Torah MiTzion. When we left the room, it was clear that we were going to join, not because he tried to convince us, but because we drew strength from his words."

"For us, it is like completing a circle, because we named the adorable baby girl born to us three weeks ago Hadar and the Maharal explains that the hadar (aura) of a tzaddik is the impressions left by his righteous attributes. That is the kind of impression that leaves people who meet you saying: 'Wow, we also want to try to be like that.' That is enough to make it worthwhile to go out on shlichut."

The kollel headed by Rabbi Rafael is one of Torah MiTzion's more veteran kollels, having been established 23 years ago. The Memphis community is very different from that in Nashville – in Memphis, the Reform congregation is the largest, and the Orthodox one rather small. The Azougi family, Rabbi Rafael and Orit, are the only Zionist shlichim in the city, making their work all the more significant.

"People living in Washington or New York get to meet a good many Israelis," says Orit. "Here, if we do something, everyone is sure that all Israelis act that way. After three weeks here, we were invited for a Shabbat meal - in the last three years, we have eaten almost no Shabbat meals alone," she says smilingly. "We came home in the rain on Friday night. The next day everyone was saying that Israelis have no qualms about taking their children home in the rain."

"Another time we had a party in the kindergarten one of my children attends, and the parents had to answer questions their children had been asked beforehand and try to guess their answers. By some fluke, I got all the answers right. At the end of the evening everyone said that Israelis know their children best, because Israeli education encourages that. They even asked me to give a workshop on how to get to know one's children…every innocent and instinctive step we take becomes a way to identify Israelis."

As with any educational endeavor, immediate and clearly attributable results are hard to ascertain, but Rafael has had the satisfaction of seeing change in real time. One example, which he shared with me, touched his soul. "I had a chavruta (Torah learning partner) at night with a student of mine who lives in New Orleans and we celebrated reaching the end of a Talmudic tractate together. All the community rabbis came to celebrate with my student, who had completed a tractate for the first time in his life.

At the end of the year's graduation party, he said "Next year I am going to college" and suddenly paused and added: 'No, that's not true. That is how my life could have played out. However, now that I completed a Talmud tractate along with my studies here in this school, I am going to spend a year in Israel and then continue to Yeshiva University.' The learning really impressed him. It was a learning partnership that has affected his entire life."

ExcitingTorah study with an American twist

One cannot spend an entire Shabbat in Nashville without having a conversation with the stars of the event, Eitan and Tal Bar Or, the new shlichim who arrived in Nashville at the beginning of the school year. They moved from the city of Ariel in Samaria to a city whose Jewish community has much in common with an Israeli small town or settlement, not in size but in community spirit. We found the time to ask the locals how it is going and it seems that the :shidduch" is working out well. The community welcomed the Bar Or family with open arms and over Shabbat we heard only positive reports, praise and compliments for the young couple.

Readers may think that the life of a shaliach is milk and honey, but the truth is somewhat different. Eitan and Tal describe the shock they felt at the beginning of their stay. "It was totally different from what we expected," said Eitan."We understood that it is a small community but we didin't realize just how small it is. We knew the school was small, but we didn't realize just how small."

Tal continues: "We expected them to tell us what their expectations are.They gave us a general outline, but we were sure they would present us with more goals. We began to reinvent the wheel and think about what we want to accomplish. They reacted positively to everything we suggested and that is what makes it so terrific – we have a free hand to do things, to have influence in our own way."

Do you feel that during the six months since you arrived, you have already had an influence on Jewish life in Nashville?

Eitan: "I don't know if there is an earthshaking change, but we see a sparkle in the eyes of those with which we are in contact and there are a lot of those. Sometimes it is something I say during a Torah lecture, sometimes it is something we have done for people, sometimes it is our very presence, sometimes it is because of the children. It is not always glittering, however. There are spheres of activity that people are happy to see and there are others in a gray area."

"At the end of the day there is a point where you are seen as a person and not as a cheerleader trying to raise everyone's morale. After all, you work, have a family, you have challenges and responsibilities and that is not an insignificant part of being here. We are not outsiders who tried to enter their lives, we are part of their reality. You are part of the minyan, on the school staff, take part in the community's challenges. It is as if you came to an established community with its own traditions, but at the same time have the feeling you are building it all anew, founding things that were not here previously."

Tal: "We think that the place chosen for shlichut cannot be dependent on a specific shaliach. Our goal is to give of ourselves for two years and to create something that will make it easier for the person who comes after us to work because he will not have to begin from scratch, but will be able to step into our shoes and begin his own fruitful activities from the defined and established things we developed."

Eitan and Tal's arrival in Nashville begins with a retired couple, Moshe and Libby Verdun, both over 80. The two were born in Nashville on the same day and on the same street. This summer will be their 60th wedding anniversary. The two made aliya in the nineties, lived in Israel for 25 years, but returned to Nashville to be with their children and grandchildren, who had remained there.

Moshe and Libby have been connected to Torah MiTzion for many years, and have helped the organization significantly in meeting its financial burdens. It was natural to them that shlichim would get to Nashville. "We thought it was the right thing to do to bring a family here and connect the community to more hours of Torah study, something many members had never taken part in before, as some of them never had the chance to study Judaism, " they tell me.

"In our opinion, it is crucial that they know about Torah and the State of Israel. The family that came adds a new connection that was not adequately represented before. We strongly supported the idea, but we were not the only ones. There was general agreement among all the city's congregations that the need is real. The Nashville Jewish community wanted to strengthen its Judaism and we are seeing that happen."

Over Shabbat we were treated to samples of the activities in various congregations in which shlichim operate. The kollel heads who came for the Shabbaton participated in giving shiurim to community members, forming study groups during the period between the Torah reading and the Mussaf prayer, in which each local worshiper, or several of them, studied with one of the shlichim. The same type of study experience took place in the women's section. The entire study session gave a new meaning to the kind of exuberant intellectual arguments that take place during Torah study – these had a definite American twist. This kind of learning is totally new in Nashville and it is no wonder that every congregation in the city was represented during prayer and in the ensuing activities.

These original activities, joined with traditional deep learning experiences, are typical of all shlichim. Rabbi Itiel Oron, for example, heads the Torah MiTzion Kollel in Washington, and teaches high level Gemara to a select group in the upper high school classes there, but also finds his way to the hearts of all the students.

"We find the time to come up with initiatives to attract all kinds of students. One of our projects was called kit-kat mishna, in which students are give a kit-kat bar for every mishna they learn. By the morning following the announcement of the prizes, over 80 mishnayot had been learned, and the project is in its second year now."

"My second 'hat' is teaching the four Torah MiTzioin kollel students. I devote two hours a day solely for our studies. Anyone passing by the room during those hours sees a group of religious Zionists full of enthusiasm at studying Torah. It is really important because the misconception in this area is that real Torah study necessitates being dressed as a haredi Jew – and suddenly these guys who played basketball with you a few minutes ago are your role models. In addition there are lots of other activities, from Friday night Oneg Shabbat to class evenings. Every four years the entire high school body flies to Israel for ten days. The reactions after this trip are stupendous."

The anonymous cantor

Moments after a musical havdala service, a relatively new custom that has turned into the mandatory way to end Shabbat at home and in the Bnai Akiva youth group, everyone joins – locals and shlichim – for a dance that goes on and on. No one wants to break the magical atmosphere, everyone wants just a few minutes more of togetherness.

The questions and repartee continue during leave taking and on one side of the room, the head of a kollel can be seen in conversation with the man known as 'the cantor' whose real name is not known to many of the worshipers. One of the shlichim is in the back of the shul talking to a 17 year old local young man who converted several years ago and is trying to decide on his future. He would like advice about whether to move to Israel next year or to stay and complete his academic degree first and then make aliya and join the IDF with the ability to make a significant contribution to the technological corps. He, naturally, wants to know how to combine IDF service with Torah study.

Zev Schwartz, standing on the sidelines, observes the scene with a smile on his face. Watching his shlichim in action, he says: "A shaliach is a man of integrity who can serve as a role model. He lives and breathes Judaism, Torah, the Land of Israel and the Jewish people He is filled with love and easy to connect to. A good shaliach has the ability to touch the soul and influence it."

It looks like a tough challenge

"One advantage is that a shaliach does not go alone to any destination. There is a group and each member has his strong points. This way they complement each other and achieve harmony and synergize energies. The single boys are a model for how someone unmarried should lead his life, for how to maintain standards of modesty. A married couple is a role model for partnership and childrearing.

"The communities often tell us: We want our sons and daughters to grow up to be like the shlichim or like their children and that, too, has influence on them. Many of the shlichim continue to be in touch with the congregation members long after they have returned to Israel and even encourage aliya. They have only left Israel for a year or two, but they continue to be ambassadors of Diaspora Jewry for many years after they return."

Schwartz has an important message that he gleans from this Shabbat and the entire shlichim program: "There is a good deal to learn from US Jewry and from our Diaspora brothers, mainly about building a community: What community life is all about, how important the work of the congregational rabbi is, worry, sensitivity, doing your best for the community. We have to bring people closer, to study them, understand them and, of course, continue the work of the shlichim with all our strength. We have to find more shlichim to be the human bridge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry."

The writer attended the Nashville Shabbaton as a guest of Torah MiTzion.

Translated by Rochel Sylvetsky

About Torah MiTzion: Shlichim who serve as role models

What is Torah MiTzion? Torah MiTzion is a religious Zionist movement founded in 1995 in order to strengthen Jewish communities the world over, while deepening their connection to the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel. The organization's goal is to influence Jewish communities to establish Torah study centers, empower young leadership, deepen the connection with Israel and enhance commitment to the Jewish and Zionist ethos.

Torah MiTzion puts concentrated efforts into developing personal ties between the shlichim and their communities through varied educational activities, both formal and informal, including chavruta learning, group study, internet sites and parent-child programs. In addition to ongoing scheduled activities, much emphasis is placed on Shabbat and holiday programs which include lectures, youth services and festive meals.

Close to 1500 shlichim have been trained by Torah MiTzion, all of them post-IDF service, either young men with significant backgrounds in Torah study or young families. The shlichim have reached five continents in order to bring honor to the Torah, increase Torah study and also to bring Israel and Diaspora Jewry closer to each other.

Shlichim act as role models, combining army service and Torah, known by the expression "safra vesayfa" – the sword and the book - in Aramaic. They arrive at their designated communities after intensive training seminars during which they are given a professional set of tools for varied educational activities aimed at youngsters, adolescents and adults.

As of today, the organization's shlichim can be found in North America, Australia, and Europe.