Shlichim from Ohr Torah Stone programs gather outside Athens' Beit Shalom Great Synagogue
Shlichim from Ohr Torah Stone programs gather outside Athens' Beit Shalom Great SynagogueOhr Torah Stone

A delegation of graduates from the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Emissary Programs currently serving as community rabbis throughout Europe met this week in Athens, Greece, to address growing challenges facing the global Jewish community and look ahead to new opportunities in a post-coronavirus world.

While continued restrictions and the spread of the virus made planning the three-day event challenging, the need felt by the emissaries to connect in addressing the many common challenges facing their individual communities was great. While those who flew in from 11 different countries adhered strictly to COVID-19 regulations, tens of others who were unable to travel joined the conference via Zoom.

“The past two years have only reinforced the importance and need of bringing informed and passionate rabbinical couples and educators from Israel to Jewish communities across the globe,” explained Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, Director of the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Emissary Programs, part of the Ohr Torah Stone network. “And after two years in which we did not have in-person conferences, our shlichim (emissaries -ed.) felt the need to gather together to address the challenges and questions being raised in their communities. The most effective way to support our graduates in the field is to be there with them, on the ground.”

Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Nachman Shai (Labor), addressed participants in the conference's opening panel, stating that “anti-Semitism is alive and kicking”, referring to a report published by his Ministry ahead of this Thursday's International Holocaust Remembrance Day and recording a jump in the number and areas where anti-Semitic incidents occurred.

“There aren’t two Jewish nations – one in Israel and one in the Diaspora,” Shai said. “We have one Jewish nation, and we know too well that anti-Semitism doesn’t differentiate between Jews in the Diaspora or Jews in Israel.”

Minister Shai commended the work of the Straus-Amiel rabbinical emissaries and the Beren-Amiel educational emissaries saying, “Vibrant Jewish life starts with education and your efforts are so important for the future of our people. Your work helps inspires the passion for Judaism and Israel in our younger generation, and we know that without lighting that fire we won’t be able to encourage increased aliyah (immigration to Israel - ed.). Our goal has to be ensuring aliyah by choice, not from lack of choice.”

Beyond the many practical challenges imposed by the pandemic in many communities, the Jewish world has been witness to many shifting trends that require an educated and halakhic (pertaining to Jewish law - ed.) response by religious community rabbis and teachers. Among the topics being addressed at the conference are the changing role of women in traditional Judaism, interfaith education, Judaism in the digital and global era, as well as challenges facing the family unit during shlichut (while serving as emissaries - ed.).

Participants also heard about Israeli government reforms in areas of kashrut (kosher - ed.) and conversion from Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana (Yamina); enjoyed a halakhic question and answer session with Rabbi Eliezer Melamed; examined case-studies of halakhic communal dilemmas; and shared educational, outreach, and programming ideas with one another through a variety of sessions.

Addressing the series of reforms that his government has introduced in recent weeks in regards to conversion and kashrut supervision, Minister Kahana said, “I believe our mission is to preserve the spiritual future of the State of Israel and Jewish identity. Today there is no enemy or external force that can drive us out of the State of Israel; the only ones who can evict us are us ourselves. We find ourselves in a time of deep division within Israeli society.”