Or Eliaz, 26, joined Hillel Milwaukee as an Israel Fellow this summer; the visiting Israeli is pursuing his dream, to engage students and represent Israel.
“Israel needs to have the backs of the Jews in the Diaspora and they need us against antisemitism,” Eliaz said.
The Israel Fellow program is a project of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Met Americans in the Israeli navy
Or said his background is secular, and he had never celebrated Havdalah until he was in the Israeli navy, when he met with American Jews. His first Havdalah ever was with a Taglit-Birthright Israel group from Los Angeles; he was an Israel Defense Force representative.
The Los Angeles visitors got into a circle, hugging as a group (before the pandemic), and lit a Havdalah candle. They passed the fragrant spice box, which some say provides a whiff of Shabbat sweetness to carry into the week. An Israeli soldier played guitar. There was magic in that moment for Eliaz.
“I opened my mind,” he said. “I think that moment made me feel I have a lot to learn from how Diaspora Jews celebrate their Judaism and their rituals. Being an Israel Fellow sounded to me like a big dream when I just finished my army service …”
The experience was part of what inspired him to spend two summers at URJ Greene Family Camp, and now, to come to Milwaukee as an Israel Fellow.
At the Greene camp in Texas in the summers of 2017 and 2018, Eliaz served as a counselor, lifeguard and ropes instructor. He also lived with a host family before camp, where he learned a lot, he said.
“I understand what it is like to be one of the 10 Jewish families in a public school in America,” he said, thinking of his host family experience. “I learned that you need to work hard to express your ethnic identity.”
He is working toward a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history and education from the University of Haifa, with an expected 2022 graduation date. He has been active in Haifa Hillel and worked with American Hillel students.
During his studies, he said he has gotten deep into his family roots and discovered how they lived in Iran for 100 years and kept their Jewish tradition a secret.
Part of an Israel fellow’s role is to represent Israel. Eliaz said he hopes to cut through the antisemitism that can permeate anti-Zionism.
“When they hear about the situation in Israel, I want them to see the whole picture,” he said. “Why I am here is to help the students do it by themselves.”
Hillel Milwaukee, at 3053 N. Stowell Ave. near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, works to serve area university students and young adults. It offers holiday and cultural programs, Shabbat dinners, leadership opportunities, social action projects, Israel programs, outdoor activities, and social gatherings. It is open to all local students who have a sincere desire to learn more about Judaism, according to its mission statement. It welcomes Jewish young adults from all backgrounds, including religious, secular and interfaith.
Eliaz also said he doesn’t like to emphasize the different denominations of Judaism. He sees value in all Jews.
“My role will be to work with Jewish and non-Jewish students in universities,” he said. “I want to bring students emotional support and Jewish support. I’m there for them.”