Serving the Diaspora
Ayala and Ariel Wilchfort are recent arrivals to Vancouver. (photo from Ariel Wilchfort)
Two years ago, Rabbi Gideon Osher Shmueli donated a kidney to a stranger, saving that individual’s life. These days, he works at Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn, N.Y., teaching Hebrew and bringing with that teaching the culture and values of Judaism and eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.
To him, teaching about Judaism is akin to donating a vital organ. “Connecting Jews to Torah and mitzvot is no different from helping someone to live,” said Shmueli, 32, who, with his wife, Leore Sachs Shmueli, was matched with the school by Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel Practical Training Program for Educational Emissaries, which trains educators who are sent to teach Judaic studies in both Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools throughout the Diaspora. A similar initiative, the Straus-Amiel Program for Rabbinical Emissaries, trains rabbis for synagogue postings in the Diaspora.
Like Shmueli, Rabbi Ariel Wilchfort is a recent arrival to his new post. He is city director for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth in Vancouver, following his participation in the emissary training at OTS’s Israel campuses.
“They guided me and helped me choose positions,” said Wilchfort, 33, who relocated to Vancouver with his wife Ayala and their two young children.
Wilchfort, who attended the emissary training from 2015 to 2017, said he found his current job when a representative for NCSY, the youth arm of Orthodox congregations in North America, visited with him and other emissaries.
Based in Israel, OTS is a modern Orthodox network of 24 institutions on 12 campuses, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin with a mission in part to demonstrate that Judaism’s “laws and traditions remain profoundly relevant to the contemporary world,” Riskin has said.
As part of that mission, OTS has some 200 emissary families serving in more than 50 countries, according to Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, who directs the emissary programs. Shlichim (emissaries) serve on average five to six years, with some who have been at their posts as long as 18 years.
They serve not only in large Diaspora communities but also in places that are far afield and have few Jews, such as Quito, Ecuador; Guangzhou, China; Cochin, India; and Harare, Zimbabwe. “We believe that people need to work with people, and the only way to influence other people and strengthen their Jewish identity, as well as the community itself, is by having emissaries and creating personal connections,” Birnbaum said.
OTS annually receives at least 150 applications for the program, and chooses 25. “We accept only applicants who have advanced Torah knowledge and yeshivah background, high academic level and, most important, very good people and leadership skills,” said Birnbaum.
The training program consists of weekly classes with educators, rabbis, experts in halachah (Jewish law) and advisers. Shlichim assignments range from teaching positions, to youth directors to pulpit positions.
In a smaller Jewish community like Vancouver, Wilchfort occupies several roles on the community scene, mentoring young people at Congregation Schara Tzedeck and running a religious education program called Torah High, in which Jewish students can attend afternoon classes and gain a few credits toward earning their high school degree.
Originally from Englewood, N.J., Wilchfort’s family immigrated to Israel when he was a child, and he received his rabbinic ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate at the same time that he was enrolled in the Beren-Amiel program. He said he was drawn to the initiative by a desire to serve Jews in the Diaspora and help them enrich their Jewish lives.
“I entered the program out of a care for other Jews, a love for our nation, and especially a love for our fellow Jews who have not had an adequate religious education,” he said.
Wilchfort has enjoyed settling into Vancouver, which he credits for having a vibrant Jewish scene. “Our community has a great infrastructure; it’s a very pro-Israel community here,” he said. “As for the area itself, it’s beautiful. In Vancouver, we live between forests and the ocean, and everyone is so health-aware, nature-aware.”
For Wilchfort, whose wife’s first language is Hebrew, not English, it’s a true cross-cultural experience. “It’s a new city, new country, new culture. It’s really an adventure, and we feel so excited to be here.”