Ella Haetzni still struggles to define what being a shlicha is all about.
“There is no good translation for it,” says the 24-year-old Jerusalem native. “The best way to explain it in English is cultural emissary from Israel. Shlicha means to come to a place, to bring something.
“My work is to bring some Israeli culture to the community and talk about the connection between Israeli society and Jewish-American society. And to bring back what I learned from visiting here.”
Haetzni moved to Columbia six months ago to begin her yearlong tenure working for the Jewish Federation of Howard County.
The federation has kept Haetzni busy meeting various community members and students. “I’m working with a lot of age groups — preschool, teens, youth groups, young adults, PJ Library, seniors, sisterhoods, men’s clubs and so on,” Haetzni says. “The idea is to do for each age group something that will connect them to Israel.”
This year, the primary focus of shlichim around the world is the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
“We are doing a lot of programming related to the anniversary,” says Haetzni. “We call it, ‘From Holocaust to Revival.’ We started with one program every month and they are open to the community. In February, [the topic was] ‘Challenges and Opportunities.’ In March, it [was] ‘Taste of Memories,’ with a cooking class in remembrance of [Israeli] soldiers and others.”
Next month’s event will be the “Israel at 70 Festival” on Sunday afternoon, May 6, on the lawn of Temple Isaiah in Fulton. Haetzni says the all-ages event, “a sort of birthday bash for Israel, [will feature] musicians, Israeli food, wine tasting and a lot of activities related to Israel. We’re really excited for it.”
With Israel being seven decades old, Haetzni says it’s a good time to reflect on the country’s past and look toward its future.
“Today in Israel, there is a lot of anxiety about how we change,” she says. “On one hand, we did something incredible — we have a country that didn’t exist 70 years ago. On the other hand, we have a lot of struggling, a lot of debate about how we should change, what we should do.”
This discussion is not just relegated to socio-political matters, Haetzni says, but about the evolving nature of Judaism and Israel’s relationship to Judaism and Diaspora Jewry.
She sees myriad similarities between the Israeli and American Jewish communities and how each community strives to negotiate differences with fellow Jews in their own countries and around the world.
“Here and in Israel, we want to understand how we can have different ideas together and still stand as one,” she says.
In both countries, Haetzni says she sees Jewish societies that are “really willing to find solutions.”
In some respects, Haetzni says she finds the mid-Atlantic region quite similar to her hometown.
“In some ways, D.C. is Jerusalem-like,” she says. “Everyone wants a part of Jerusalem, but for me it’s home. It’s amazing. You live with so many people who are different from you. In D.C., they are not allowed to build high buildings to save the spirit of the city, and it’s the same in Jerusalem.”
Of course, Haetzni notes that the Israeli capital is much older and “really important to world religions. There’s no city like Jerusalem in the world.”
Although her job keeps her busy, Haetzni has been touring the U.S. whenever time permits. “I’ve been to New York City, all up and down the East Coast, New England, Boston, D.C., Florida and Chicago,” she says. “I love the fact that every place here is so different from each other. They are all American, but they are so different.”
In February, Haetzni enjoyed attending a Super Bowl party at a friend’s house, an experience that familiarized her with American football, traditional Super Bowl fare, halftime shows and Super Bowl TV commercials.
“It was very funny to see how every [commercial] was very moving but related to cars in the end,” she says
Haetzni started her journey as a shlicha while working as a counselor in a pre-army leadership program for young people. To be eligible for the program, she says she took “a lot of tests” and then had “a lot of interviews with a lot of communities.”
In the end, Haetzni, who will return to Israel at the end of this summer, says Howard County was a good fit for her. She feels that people are friendly there and “the rabbis and communities are working well with each other,” a practice she believes Israelis could learn from.
Haetzni says she also is learning a great deal about Judaism in America.
“I think you need to work more in the states to stay Jewish and have a Jewish life. In Israel, [being Jewish] comes very easily,” she says. Her experience in Howard County has given Haetzni a “better understanding of how it is to be a Jewish American.”
To contact Haetzni, call 410-730-4976, ext. 122, or email Shlichut@JewishHowardCounty.org.
Erica Rimlinger is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.