A native of Moshav HaYogev located at the entrance to the Jezreel Valley, Itamar landed in New York fresh out of law school, with the rank of Captain in the Givati Infantry Brigade. Since his arrival, he has impressed everyone with his drive and determination and last year he was honored as "Outstanding Shaliach" by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Question: You are a recent graduate of law school in Israel. What made you want to come here on shlichut?
Answer: Before settling down to a legal career, I wanted to do something to contribute to Israeli society, and shlichut was one of the best options I could think of. Aliyah is still one of the most important missions that Israel has and I think that on shlichut I can help North American Jews and, especially Conservative Jews, see why now more than ever, it is an exciting option.
Q: But you are from a secular Moshav — what brings you to Conservative Judaism?
A: When I became aware that the position of Shaliach to the Conservative Movement was a possibility, I started to explore Conservative-Masorti Judaism in Israel. Interestingly, while I grew up on a very secular moshav, my grandfather, a Jerusalem native, was a leader of the Bratslaver Hassidim. Attending services at Masorti synagogues, I found them open and welcoming. I didn't feel foreign there, and the more I explored, the more interesting it was and has continued to become.
Q: Israel is such a cosmopolitan country, with Jews having immigrated from over 80 countries. Why would Israel benefit from a larger influx of immigrants from North America?
A: Israel profits from immigrants from every country. But American olim, who come with their background in democracy as well as in Jewish and Zionist education, are in a unique position to contribute to Israeli society. Conservative Jews not only help us to strengthen our democratic, social and political values but also bring the value of religious pluralism. American olim can be seen helping in the areas of education and the environment, and while the Masorti Movement in Israel is now home to many native- born Israelis, it was American olim who brought it to us.Israel is no longer just a sanctuary for Jews suffering from oppression. It also offers exciting options, such as community. And nowadays, people who want it are able to make the choice of aliyah and still maintain their same lifestyle as they had in America.
Q: And why is aliyah "good for the Americans"?
A: For me, bringing to Israel people who are attached to their Judaism in an open non-coercive manner is invaluable to Israeli society. At the same time, it is no longer the case that in moving to Israel, an oleh has to give up and surrender qualities of life s/he enjoyed in the Diaspora.
Further, when I see people who are looking to do something meaningful in their lives, Israel offers exciting and dynamic opportunities because it is a young country, still in the process of changing, growing and re-evaluating its goals. New non-profit organizations are springing up all the time, so there are lots of opportunities to make a difference, while the economy is growing stronger and stronger.
Aliyah today is not the aliyah of twenty years ago. Israel is not that far away. With the Internet, cellphones, Skype, etc, you can now make aliyah and no longer leave everyone behind. The Israeli economy today is not what it was twenty years ago. We are a fully functioning western economy. Some American firms prefer to do their "R&D" in Israel, not only because of decreased costs but also because of the level of higher education in Israel. In fact, with all the new communications, it is now possible for someone to live in Israel and still maintain a business in America.
Also, Israel offers a quality of life that is unmatched on many levels. I can't think of a better environment for children than Israel. Kids can go out to play without organized play dates and without parents' checking up on them. They enjoy complete freedom of movement. And there are great opportunities for higher education in Israel at the relatively low cost of $2,500 for a year of university studies, expenses that the government will cover for the first three years for new immigrants.
Q: We hear that you have started a new program to help American olim adjust to life in Israel. What is it?
A: This is "BaBayit Beyachad" ("At Home Together"). With the help of Rabbi Paul Freedman, the Jerusalem-based Director of the United Synagogue's Israel Commission, and under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, we are now able to connect Conservative olim with native Israelis and veteran Masorti immigrants as soon as the newcomers arrive in Israel. The "old-timers" in essence adopt the newcomers, helping them learn the ropes. Thus, the olim have an immediate support system. Although this program has existed for some time, this is the first time that we are now able to identify Conservative olim and connect them with Masorti-affiliated Israelis.
Q: During the 1990's, with the Oslo Peace Process and Israel's first high-tech boom, some American Jewish and Israeli intellectuals contended that we had entered into the period of post-Zionism, in which both communities could focus on their own internal concerns. Do you think that terminology describes where we are?
A: NO! We are not in a post-Zionist phase. We have established a Jewish State in Israel, but Zionism is not a fait accompli. It is not territorial.It is about creating a model society - a "hevrat mofet" - in Israel. While we still need to worry about security, we can also look ahead to the next step of creating an ideal society. We must decide what to do to insure that our society is both Jewish and democratic. Rather than a melting pot, we need to pursue a "mosaic society," one that preserves and celebrates our various cultures - religious, geographical, ethnic. And in this, American Conservative Jews can be a big help to us, because of the values of democracy and religious pluralism which they bring with them.
Q: If you could say one short message to American Conservative Jews, what would it be?
A: People from the Conservative Movement have a place in Israel. Come, get to know us and become a part of our solutions. We want you to come and put your ideas on the table. American olim bring with them a new enthusiasm about Israel, which we need. In order for Israel to continue to flourish, we need people like you who will look at us with new, idealistic eyes. Conservative Jews from America are uniquely positioned to help us do this.