As the Baltimore Zionist District’s new resident shaliach, or Israel emissary, Idan Zrihen is crystal clear about his role.
“My job is to bring Israel to the Baltimore community,” says Zrihen, 31, who moved to Pikesville with his wife, Michal, and their 18-month-old son, Yuval, last November from his hometown of Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city in Israel.
It’s a role that matches perfectly with the BZD’s self-described mission: “To foster knowledge and understanding of the State of Israel, to facilitate dialogue, to raise awareness and to advocate for a secure future for Israel,” and one for which Zrihen has prepared his entire adult life.
At 18, he volunteered for a year with the Bronfman Fellowship, an educational program for young Israeli and American Jews, before serving in the Israel Defense Forces. After earning his bachelor’s degree in education and economics at Tel-Hai College in northern Israel, Zrihen went to work at a kibbutz in Ashkelon where he organized after-school activities for the children of the village.
Later, Zrihen earned a master’s degree in social leadership from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He became a shaliach for the Diller Teen Fellows program in 2014, and that’s when his relationship with Baltimore’s Jewish community began.
A program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, Diller Teen Fellows “was part of the Ashkelon-Baltimore partnership,” Zrihen says. A teen leadership program with a focus on strengthening participants’ Jewish identity and commitment to social justice, Diller hired Zrihen to work in Ashkelon, planning events for fellows who visited Israel.
“Working as a Diller coordinator was the first time I had anything to do with global Jewry,” says Zrihen, and the position was an eye-opening experience for him. Zrihen found himself inspired to continue his work as a shaliach and help grow the bond between American Jews and Israel.
His job with the BZD was a natural evolution. As BZD shaliach, which is a two- to three-year position, Zrihen is responsible for planning community events such as the Tzofim Friendship Caravan, a program in which 10 teens from Israel visit Baltimore, raising awareness about the Jewish state through music, dance and the sharing of personal stories. The teens perform at local Jewish camps, synagogues and senior and community centers.
“In the short time Idan has been here, he has already made a meaningful impact on our community,” says Sivan Chaban, the BZD’s program manager. “He has strengthened the connections with longtime, dear friends of the BZD while also forming new relationships with other agencies and partners within the community. Idan brings with him refreshing and dynamic ideas and perspectives about Israel, and we are so lucky to have him and his family in Baltimore, especially in time for Israel’s 70th birthday. He has a lot of wonderful programs planned for the coming months and we can’t wait for the community to experience Israel through him.”
In upcoming months, Zrihen also will be responsible for the BZD’s Israel independence day celebration as well as Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day.
The BZD’s Teen Israel Experience is the organization’s flagship program. Open to local Jewish high school students who have not been on an organized mission to Israel, the four-week trip includes tours of Jerusalem and Haifa and activities such as hiking Masada, snorkeling in Eilat, rafting on the Jordan River and visiting with Bedouins.
“What sets our program apart from the rest is the elective options where teens get to choose from three different [weeklong] Israel experiences,” says Zrihen. “[The choices are] the Sea-to-Sea Hike program, in which teens hike from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee; a service learning program, where they participate in a series of community service projects; and the Gadna program. Organized by the IDF and located on a specialized army educational base, Gadna is a ‘basic training-style’ experience for teens from abroad.
“One of the most important pieces of our teen trip is the generous subsidy from our donors that can reach up to $3,000,” he adds. “These teens not only see Israel, but also experience it.”
Meanwhile, Zrihen says he and his family are finding their place in Baltimore’s Jewish community and enjoying their time here.
“I am really glad and feel fortunate to have this opportunity to deepen my connection with the Baltimore community,” Zrihen says. “We have family in Baltimore. It’s not blood-related, but it’s heart-related.”
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Jordan Loux is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.