Q&A: Pnina Ezra debriefs and remembers Milwaukee fondly

Pnina Ezra served as Israel Fellow at Hillel Milwaukee from mid-2016 to mid-2018. The Israel Fellows program is a collaboration between Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel that places young Israeli professionals on North American campuses to serve as peer ambassadors to the campus community.

This Q&A is with Pnina Ezra, the former Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow at Hillel Milwaukee. The Q&A was conducted by the agency …

Given that you’re now back in Israel, but served for two years as an Israel fellow in the Diaspora, how do you feel about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh?

The synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh was heartbreaking. Knowing that the Jewish communities in the Diaspora are experiencing a difficult time, now more than ever, just because they’re Jewish is devastating.

The rituals in some Jewish communities in the Diaspora are similar; every Saturday morning some in the community gather for Shabbat services, sometimes followed by family lunch. The events in Pittsburgh made me think about my community, and what I would do if it would’ve happened there, maybe while I was attending services. I do not have the answer for that. The Pittsburgh community has to be strong now and accept the support from all around, both from Jewish communities, but also from our allies. Knowing that my people are feeling unsafe is hard to understand, and as a recent emissary, I worry about it. I immediately messaged people in the community, to check in, but also to show support, as a Jew.

Pnina Ezra

I also think that this unfortunate event created a much needed sense of responsibility among the Jewish people, regardless of our location. I hear the conversations around me in Israel about the shooting and the reactions surprised me. People around me started to be interested in the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, started to acknowledge the existence of anti-Semitism today, and understand that we have to stick together, that the differences don’t matter. Your skin color doesn’t matter, your affiliation doesn’t matter and neither do your political views matter anymore. This is why we have to focus on strengthening the bonds and support the community in Pittsburgh and all over.

I think that as a former Israel fellow it is easier for me to reach those conclusions, and that helps me to emphasize the importance of the responsibility to our family across the seas. Kol Israel Arevim Ze La’Ze (all of Israel is responsible one to another) is not just a saying, it’s a way of life that we all should embrace and act accordingly.

How do you feel your work as an Israel fellow impacted your community and its relationship to Israel?

As the Jewish Agency for Israel fellow to Hillel Milwaukee I dedicated myself to improving the Israel component at my community and working every day to encourage students to find their own Israel connection. I did that by increasing the Israel engagement, developing the Israel education, empowering the Israel leadership, elevating the Israel advocacy, and taking the Israel experiences to the next level. I created different programs with students so that the Milwaukee community can learn about different aspects of Israel. Another aspect of my work was the personal relationships that I formed with the students, through personal conversations and individual interactions around Israel and their personal connection to it. Through these conversations, I empowered students to explore and find their own connection with Israel and at the same time I’ve evolved and learned from my colleagues and students how to be better.

Since I arrived to Hillel Milwaukee (and now with the next generation of Israel fellow serving there) the Israel community on the different campuses evolved and is now thriving with different Israel groups on campus, Israel interns, different immersive Israel experiences programs such as Taglit-Birthright, Side By Side Mission and Leadership experience, Onward Israel and Masa, a visible growth in the Israel engagement numbers and an Israel education strategic plan that was the result of working with the students to identify the interests and needs at the different universities, in order to better focus the work that we do and to make sure that we accomplish our goal.

But these are just the “blank” facts. I believe that the Israel fellow’s work cannot be measured using only those factors, but by the fact that the community I served in was now feeling more comfortable in expressing their thoughts and feelings on their campuses and that the students are taking steps in their own journeys and their personal Israel stories.

Conversely, how did the community impact you?

As a young Israeli, I grew up in a very Zionist household. Even though it wasn’t spoken about, I knew it, I felt it, I saw it in every step my family took and with every conversation I heard. I am a Zionist.

In Israel, you don’t really talk about that, you do not define yourself as a Zionist since it feels obvious, but I believe that it is important to mention. It is important to learn how to define yourself in order to know what you should stand up for, in order to better advocate for yourself and your goal.

Being an Israel fellow, and especially an Israel fellow, this realization of who I am was crucial for my work, and it was something I acquired as time passed by.

I learned so much from my colleagues, my students and the community I was a part of in Milwaukee, and I think that between all the knowledge and professional work, the greatest impact they had on me was the fact that they exposed me to a whole new world of Jewish identity and Israel connection and relationship.

Now, I better understand my people, the Jewish people, and I can make my commitment to the goal of continuing enriching and strengthening the connection between Jews around the world, and with Israel.

What did you learn about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora?

Being a shlicha, especially in North America at this time on campus, was not an easy job. But with all of the challenges (such as the change in administration, etc.) and the complexity it was definitely the most meaningful position I could have asked for. Knowing that I’m making a difference within the Jewish peoplehood every day, connecting Israel to the Diaspora, and doing it all under the Jewish Agency for Israel umbrella, was worth it all.

I learned that we, all Jews, are alike. We all care, and that this is the key. With every conversation I had with Jews in the Diaspora I felt the concern about Israel, the sense of responsibility, and this made me feel hopeful that even though there might be disagreements about a lot of issues, we all come from the same place of making the world a better place for the Jewish people and strengthening the Jewish peoplehood.

Do you have one moment that stands out in your head where it was clear your work on the ground was making a serious difference?

The moment I really understood the impact of my work was, ironically, the moment I announced I will be ending my term as the Jewish Agency Israel fellow. Even though it wasn’t a surprise, the huge hug I got from my community left me speechless. The students I’d been working with then started to tell me the small ways in which I influenced them, not even knowing. One of those times was over a “coffee-date” with a student I’ve worked with closely in the two years I was there. She was sitting there, skimming through our joint history together until this moment, then stopped and asked me, “You really don’t realize what you’ve done here, huh? Well, I can say that for sure, if you weren’t here, I wouldn’t have been here either, none of us would’ve. You touched us and we’re different now.”

This conversation left me speechless until this day. It wasn’t all of the Israel trips I planned and led, nor the Israel programming I revamped and created, it was the personal relationships that made the difference – both to my community and to me.

How has it been since being back in Israel? How long have you been back, where do you live, and what are you doing in Israel now?

I returned to Israel almost four months ago, in which I’ve been slowly adjusting to the Israel speed in life. I am now back in my home town in the center of Israel, preparing to move to Tel Aviv in the near future. Being back home feels great! And even though a lot changed (new NIS bills, new roads, etc.), it all feels the same. I felt it was important for me to take the time and ease my way back by dedicating and spending a lot of time with my family and friends and celebrating the High Holidays in the Holy Land.

I’ve continued in the journey of completing my M.A. degree in Jewish Studies (a special program by JAFI and Ono Academic College), and am now navigating my professional career looking for the right fit for me.

How did you feel attending the GA in Israel this year, where Diaspora communities from North America gathered in the place that you have been advocating for?

I was very happy to have had the opportunity to attend, once again, the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, but this time in Israel. I felt that everything is coming down to this moment, of celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary while continuing to open up the conversation between Israel and the Jewish communities in the diaspora. The topic of the GA this year was “Let’s Talk,” which in my opinion, sets the ground for a much needed conversation. This setting is allowing the participants to take the time to engage in real conversations, with real people from all over the world, in order to make connections that will lead the Jewish people forward, to better peoplehood and understanding.

I felt honored to be representing the emissary community and The Jewish Agency for Israel, while meeting with the representatives from Jewish communities from all around, including my own community from Milwaukee.

As a returning emissary, what can you bring back to Israel from the Hillel Milwaukee community?

I think that I’m bringing back home to Israel with me a whole new conversation, the Israel conversation. A conversation that its components are complex and intertwined with each other, such as Jewish identity, politics, different interpretations of Jewish culture, variety of different customs and so much more. But I think that maybe above it all I’m bringing back home a new and improved Jewish-Israeli-Zionist-activist me, a new family – my Milwaukee family, and a sense of belonging to the great and strong Jewish people.