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Natan Sharansky Has Given Me a Life-Changing Experience

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The first time that I thought about taking a gap year in order to volunteer in a Jewish community was when I took part in the Zofim Friendship Caravan of 2016. For three months I was part of a group of 10 young people traveling around the Southeast U.S., visiting Jewish communities and performing for them. For some of them (both children and adults), it was their first encounter with Israeli culture, and I realized how much they longed for this and yearned to know more about Israel.

As I returned to Israel, I started exploring more about The Jewish Agency for Israel and its shlichut (emissary) programs and read a lot about Natan Sharansky, the organization’s chairman. His incredible life story reminded me of my great grandfather, who made aliyah after World War II, escaping from Poland to Russia and then to Uzbekistan in an attempt to rescue himself and his family. Like Natan, the hope of coming to Israel someday literally kept him alive.

I decided that I would to take action just like Natan and my grandfather, so I applied to The Jewish Agency’s Shinshinim (service year enrichment) program. This amazing program sends young Israelis to volunteer in Jewish communities all over the world and gives them the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves. I was accepted as a Shin-Shin (young emissary) in Brooklyn’s Jewish community. 

Now, as Natan prepares to receive the Israel Prize (the state’s highest cultural honor) on April for Israeli Independence Day, I am honored to reflect on his legacy and what it means to me. Natans vision has come to life through The Jewish Agency’s network of more than 2,000 Israeli emissaries worldwide.

The first time I met Natan was at a seminar in Jerusalem, before arriving in the U.S. I met a very kind, down to earth man who spoke with so much passion about our role as emissaries in the Diaspora. Of course, I could fully understand this passion only when I got to the U.S. and started my shlichut.

There are three episodes that strongly influenced me during my time as an emissary in Brooklyn.

One was the personal story of the mother whose home I lived in. Growing up as a Jewish girl in Brooklyn, she didn’t have a strong connection to Judaism. She was raised as a secular American and didn’t even have a bat mitzvah. It was only after the birth of her children that she started to feel the need to explore her religion and joined the Conservative Jewish community. Natan also grew up without a sense of belonging to Judaism, and it was only after the 1967 Six-Day War that he started to have an interest in Israel and Jewish life.

Being a part of my hosting family and spending a lot of time together gave me the chance to better understand the American Jewish community, and for the family to learn more about Israel and the Israeli lifestyle. We felt the power of our shared legacy.

Another new experience for me in Brooklyn was shoveling snow. Since I’ve never done it before, I was excited to help my hosting sister with that. As we were shoveling the snow near our house, we started to talk about exploring new things. I told her about my gap year and why I decided to be an emissary. She told me that she wants to be part of a gap year experience just like I had and asked me to help her find programs. I felt so proud and happy that I was able to influence her life.

In my work, I get to meet all kinds of people—young children, teens, and elders. One group that I meet with every week is the teen lounge. This is a vibrant group of teenagers who may not know a lot about Israel, but they are very eager to learn. In one of our sessions, I spoke with them about military service in Israel. After the session, some of them came up to me and told me that they would like to serve in the IDF. For me, that was a huge accomplishment—helping them make the first step towards coming to Israel, exploring their heritage, and strengthening their connection to the Jewish State.

I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to continue Natan’s legacy as an emissary in the U.S. I wish him many more years of crucial work for the Jewish people around world in good health and energy. Thank you, Natan, for this life-changing opportunity.

Lihi Ben Ari is a Jewish Agency Shin-Shin (young emissary) in Brooklyn.

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