LAVI young people in Vienna at Shoah memorial

By Toby Klein Greenwald

Rikki Zalut of Efrat spent her post high school year studying Torah in a midrashah before serving in the teachers’ corps in the Israeli army. After the army, she spent time, as many Israelis do, traveling — in her case, to Central America.

But in 2016, before beginning her studies in archeology and the classics at Tel Aviv University (working also as a digger in the City of David), she decided to do something for Jewish young people abroad. Rikki became a shlichah through the LAVI organization and went to work with college students and young adults in Frankfurt, Germany.

Shai Reef speaking at University of Toronto

Why Germany?

“Because it’s important. I was always thinking of shlichut, and especially after I traveled and I saw Jewish communities in the middle of nowhere, and we met Chabad shlichim during our travels. They bring people closer to Judaism, but in LAVI, the goal of the shlichut is to bring them closer to Judaism, to Israel, and to Am Yisrael.”

A few days before I spoke with Rikki, the Jerusalem Post reported that “a regional court in Germany has decided that a brutal attempt to set fire to a local synagogue in 2014 was an act meant to express criticism against Israel’s conduct in its ongoing conflict with Gaza” and gave the three men (Muhammad E., Muhammad A., and Ismail A.), who had tossed firebombs at the synagogue suspended sentences. Daniel Killy, the spokesman for Hamburg’s Jewish community, told the news outlet tagesschau.de, “We are no longer safe here,” reported the Post.

What was it like to be a shlichah in Germany?

“It was challenging. I never thought I’d go to Germany; it’s so taboo, and with good reason. I didn’t even know there were Jews who lived in Germany till I was offered shlichut there. I had no idea why they’d want to live there.

“When we got there in the beginning, we tried to understand them. One of the students we met was the grandson of Holocaust survivors who had returned to Germany after the Shoah. His grandmother was still alive, and her children and grandchildren were there. When you talk to them, they say they love it, that they know there’s antisemitism, but they’re happy with their lives and nothing bad is happening to them right now.

“The grandfather of the girl I was on shlichut with was originally from Frankfurt, and we went to the street where he grew up. It was emotional for her to think about it, that 70 years ago her grandfather lived there and ran away and she is here now to bring Jewish people back to Judaism. They tried to kill us, didn’t succeed, we’re still here.”

LAVI Houses In Europe

LAVI, lion in Hebrew, is an educational venture that was established in 2012 in Jerusalem by Ilan Roth. Roth has an academic background in Jewish studies and 32 years of experience in informal Jewish and Zionist education in Israel and the Diaspora. He was the deputy director of Mizrachi Olamit and the chairman of its young guard, in addition to holding senior leadership roles in B’nei Akiva and in the World Zionist Organization.

In 2012, he says, he felt called to create an organization for Jewish university students and other young adults to engage more closely with their Judaism and with the State of Israel. He became one of the founders and is the director of Lavi Olami to this day.

“I founded Lavi Olami because I can’t sleep at night knowing that every moment another young Jewish man or woman is leaving Judaism and almost nobody cares. Most of those who are financially strong prefer to donate to build a synagogue or a mikveh rather than give to a project that will prevent intermarriage, including the Modern Orthodox community. And most of those who raise a flag to the future of the State of Israel don’t realize that it is not only the physical state we need to preserve and grow but the spiritual aspect of Am Yisrael, and we must encourage the young Jews of the world to take part in the rebuilding of the Jewish people in our generation.

“The goal of LAVI Olami is to enable young people to find their way to their Judaism and to discover their connection to Israel. I believe that actions will draw the hearts in their wake. Some connect through the study of Judaism or of Hebrew, and some connect to Judaism through their work in hasbarah and the struggle against antisemitism. We believe that all of these are ways to come to a deepening of Jewish identification. It is impossible to struggle for something with which one is not familiar, for something with which one does not identify.”

LAVI trains shlichim in Israel, but its branches are in Europe and North America. Its goal, they say, is to connect Jewish young adults throughout the world to the story of their people in their homeland.

In Europe they work to bring young adults closer to Judaism and to Israel, and help them cope with antisemitism through centers called LAVI House (Beit Lavi). Since April 2014, LAVI Houses have existed in Amsterdam, Budapest, Berlin, Dusseldorf, and Frankfurt. LAVI also operates in England, Vienna, Moscow, Kiev, and Rome.

According to statistics quoted by LAVI, 50 percent of students on university campuses in France, the U.K., and U.S. encountered anti-Semitism in recent years and 40 to 50 of Jewish students hide that they are Jewish during their academic studies; 85 percent of young Jews in Europe feel that they are in danger when wearing a kippah in public.

Two of the cornerstones of LAVI House in Europe are Shabbat and the beit midrash, which offers sessions in Jewish studies, Hebrew language, Jewish history, and Zionism. The shlichim also initiate one-on-one learning with members of the community in cafes or in their homes. Rikki says, “We worked mostly with students; some of them are now thinking about aliyah.”

She describes one of their most exciting success stories. “One of the students came to study because she felt there must be a bigger Jewish community in Frankfurt than she was familiar with … She came every Shabbat to sleep over because she couldn’t go up the stairs of the building she lived in without the lights automatically turning on. We’d go with her to shul and show her how to daven.”

“About two months after we arrived, she got engaged to one of the religious young men from the community. She didn’t come from any background, she just knew she was Jewish, but she got interested. We witnessed the whole process. They married, they keep an Orthodox home, she covers her hair — everything. They live in Frankfurt, where she’s a teacher and he’s a lawyer.”

Anna (not her real name) of Frankfurt came to LAVI House when she was 18. She came from an assimilated family and had little connection to anything Jewish. Today she observes Shabbat, loves Israel, and only wants to marry a man who is Jewish.

“I was a young girl surrounded by lots of friends, but none of them were Jewish. Only on those rare occasions when my mother called me by my Jewish name did I remember that I was Jewish.

“I came to Beit LAVI because of my acquaintance with the shlichim of LAVI who were active in the city. My first Shabbat in Beit LAVI was the first time I went to a synagogue for the very first time, I heard my first Kiddush, ate traditional Jewish foods, smelled the wonderful scent of freshly baked challah, and listened to the stirring Shabbat songs. It changed the course of my life.

“LAVI House became my home, and the friends I met there became my new family. I learned about Judaism, asked questions, and received answers.

LAVI In North America

While LAVI Houses in Europe offer traditional Jewish experiences, LAVI in North America has a very different tone. Most of LAVI’s campus activities focus on examining Jewish identity and contemporary issues in a way that makes the historic adventure of the Jewish people real.

Most LAVI student leaders are prepared for their roles during their “gap year” in Israel between high school and university, on a program called ATID. ATID is run by passionate volunteers, many of whom made aliyah from the U.S. after being engaged in campus battles over Israel and Jewish identity. ATID is an environment that fosters both a broadminded approach to political issues and a deep commitment to the story of the Jewish people. Participants are exposed to perspectives from across the Israeli and Palestinian spectrums and encouraged to develop their own unique Jewish liberation ideology relevant to the challenges facing their generation.

“There’s nothing students should be exposed to on campus that they didn’t already experience and process with us,” says Sharona Bat-Ephraim, a teacher on ATID who was an activist at UC Berkeley. “After completing our program they should have a sober awareness of Israel’s flaws and they should see it as their responsibility to correct those flaws. Most of our students come from communities where they’re essentially taught to be fans of Israel in much the same way they might be fans of a sports team. On ATID, they are transformed from seeing themselves as Israel supporters to seeing themselves as active participants in Jewish history.”

Rather than merely learning about heroes of previous generations, Bat-Ephraim says ATID participants are given the tools to succeed at becoming the next Jewish heroes future generations can learn about.

Shai Reef, a graduate of ATID, today a LAVI student leader in Toronto, was in Israel, “trying to discover myself and what it meant to be a Jew.” He had spent much of his youth in a charedi yeshiva, which, he says, made him very spiteful.

“Discovering LAVI contextualized all of my issues and also inspired me to a new understanding of myself and my role as part of the Jewish people. LAVI offered something different but also something that I felt more authentically expressed the experience of our people.

“I was born in Calgary, grew up in Montreal, and live in Toronto. Each of those experiences culminated in feeling that diasporic existence that generations had felt beforehand. In Calgary, my family was one of perhaps ten ‘observant’ Jewish families, and in Montreal, we were outsiders in a very chareidi community. I’ve lived in Toronto for a couple of years but am not too attached. Aliyah is always on the table and the goal.”

Shai is studying at York University for a BA in political science. He recently ran a teach-in for a student group at the University of Toronto.

“Our biggest challenge right now on campus is twofold. Firstly, ensuring that fellow Jews self-identify through authentically Hebrew identities. Not as white Canadians or Americans with a religion called ‘Judaism’ but as part of a unique people with a rich history, culture, worldview, and identity distinct from the West.

“The second part of this is ensuring that only Jews can determine what ‘Jew’ means and that outsiders shouldn’t be able to impose identities on us and definitely not argue with us when we assert ourselves. We must be stronger in both of these areas, I believe.”

Reef says that among the powerful experiences he had on the ATID program that changed his entire worldview was a Shabbat in Hebron. “I fell in love with our first capital. I recall tearing up while watching Jews of all backgrounds dancing together at Me’arat HaMachpeilah. Hebron is also a microcosm of the conflict in general, and visiting with ATID helped me to better understand the Palestinian narrative and their grievances in the conflict.”

Before joining LAVI, says Shai, “I held many Western normative and Orientalist ideas. My experiences with LAVI helped me to learn that our identity as Jews is intrinsically connected to Semitic values.”

“LAVI is attempting a paradigm shift. A revolution in thinking. Most people want to know if an organization is right or left, but LAVI actually transcends many of the contemporary political labels and wants young Jews to see the world through the eyes of their ancestors and the context of Jewish history.”

LAVI is a partner with Hakhel, the Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator, and is a member of the World Zionist Organization. For more information, see lavi-olami.org.

Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning educational theater director and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.

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