For Israeli emissaries in Bay Area, life is no picnic

Einat Dvir is 26 years old. She has a degree in political science and media studies, but most of her work experience has been as a baker and a waitress. Wearing jeans, a sweater and hip square-rimmed glasses, she uses her hands animatedly as she talks about the film festival she’s helping to organize.

For many students at U.C. Berkeley, hers is the face of Israel.

Dvir is a shaliach, or emissary, one of 75 young Israelis sent out by the Jewish Agency for Israel to cities and college campuses around the world in order to represent the Jewish state. They serve for one or two years.

Many of them serve as a cultural and educational link to Israel by working as organizers within the Jewish community; Dvir, for example, is part of the staff at Berkeley Hillel.

Einat Dvir photos/emma silvers

But as both spokespeople and organizers, theirs is often a complex role — especially in places like the Bay Area, which is home to some of the country’s most heated discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the BDS campaign (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel.

Knowing all of that, Dvir steadied herself for a flood of anti-Israeli sentiment before her arrival in Berkeley last August, but, she said, it’s “actually not an everyday thing.”

Her biggest challenge so far? The way Israel is talked about within the Jewish community.

“The way the Jewish community here talks about Israel is something that divides us every day,” she said. “That was a little bit surprising to find.”

It’s a phenomenon that’s not only surprising, but also complicated, said Nir Braudo, 34, the head shaliach for the World Zionist Organization’s San Francisco office.

“As an Israeli, I can say Judaism is my nationality, and Zionism means the right to a homeland. It doesn’t mean agreeing with everything the Israeli government does,” Braudo said. “Those questions of identity are much more complex for American Jews.”

Nir Braudo

The difficulties of grappling with those dynamics, and other tensions, were among the reasons why 11 Northern Californian shlichim got together last week for a retreat in Mill Valley. At a stately center surrounded by lush grounds in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, they shared their experiences and brainstormed new ways of having difficult conversations.

“We realized there were these common threads in terms of challenges our shlichim were facing,” said Barak Loozon, a shaliach who works under the auspices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center (he is director of young adult engagement). “It made sense to come together to talk about that.”

Lozoon will be helping to implement JAFI’s new direction for 2012-13, when the organization will send 150 young emissaries — up from the usual 75 — to represent Israel around the world. One-third of them will be placed on college campuses, with the bulk in North America. The plan is to focus on recruiting Israeli university students, especially those involved in the widespread social protests last summer.

Emphasis on social justice is one thread that helps shlichim connect to socially and politically passionate U.S. students — though according to Dvir, there are some clear differences.

Oded Gvaram

“In the Occupy movement, a lot of what I hear is about wanting to take down certain institutions, while the movement in Israel was not anti-institutional,” Dvir said. “[But] the idea of social justice from the bottom up is definitely the same.”

At the retreat, many shlichim talked about the difficulty of trying to talk to the many Americans (both Jews and non-Jews) who have misconceptions about Israel.

During a “conflict transformation” training session, facilitator Eyal Rabinovitch said, “The most powerful thing you can do is demonstrate to another person that you have a profound understanding of where they are right now, what they’re feeling.”

It was a lesson that can be applied to a range of situations in which these shlichim find themselves: from heated conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and women’s rights in Israel, to a host of debates within the often polarized Bay Area Jewish community.

But the life of an Israeli emissary in the United States is more than just heated debates and conflict.

Oded Gvaram, for example, grew up on a religious kibbutz, and has learned a lot about how Jewish American young adults view religion.

“Where I’m from, most people are either Orthodox or completely secular, so to see students who are just coming to their first services ever at a Reform synagogue, or [who] go to Shabbat dinner every week just to have a connection to religion — that’s been new,” said Gvaram, 28, the Israel Fellow at U.C. Davis–Sacramento State Hillel since last August. “I’m learning what it means to be Jewish here.”

He’s also learning how little the average Jewish American college student knows about Israel, and he’s happy to be in a position to do something about it.

“I think it’s helpful for a lot of them just to have someone to answer questions,” he said. “I can say ‘I’m from there, I was in the army, I can tell you what this or that thing was like.’ Whatever it is, it’s usually much more complex than they thought.”