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Meet Yoni Alon, Israel shaliach at JCC

Yoni Alon, pictured in front of the Israeli and American flags flying at  Loup JCC.WHEN Yoni Alon completed six-and-a-half years of service with the IDF in 2013, he planned to study for his bachelor’s degree. An astute epiphany stopped him in his tracks.

He was 25. There was plenty of time to progress from the military to career to family and so forth — and he wasn’t quite ready for all that.

“I thought, why should I be like everyone else?” Alon says in his office at the Loup JCC. “Let’s do something special. Let’s go on an adventure.”

Alon visited a good friend who was the shaliach (Israel emissary) in Portland and observed him in action. He fell in love with the idea.

The Tel Aviv native — “which is about as rare as saying you’re a Denver native” — applied to become a shaliach through the Jewish Agency. He was accepted.

America was his first choice for placement, primarily because he had spent two months as an exchange student in Los Angeles in high school.

“They offered me Denver,” Alon smiles. “ I said, ‘What is Denver?’ So I did what every young man does. I Googled it. I YouTubed it. I looked it up on Wikipedia.”

Alon started his two-year post as the JCC’s shaliach in September, 2013.

He says his mission, which encompasses Jewish teens and young adults, is twofold: to serve as a platform for Israel at the JCC; and to attract teens to a plethora of new Israel programs.

Michal Uziyahu, the shaliach at JEWISHcolorado, is the primary agent responsible for helping Denverites make aliyah to Israel, he notes.

“Michal is in charge of aliyah. If she’s too busy with a program or something, I’ll help her out, but that’s very rare.”

Then he inserts his swift brand of candor.

“To be honest, I think the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and Nefesh b’Nefesh understand that aliyah is not as popular as it used to be.”

He fills in the blanks.

“First of all, Israel is a much more challenging place financially speaking,” he says. “Many Americans who go there are amazed at the high cost of living and the low salaries.

“Secondly, there’s a generation gap. Older generations grew up with stories of the Six Day War, Yom Kippur War and the first and second Intifadas. The concept that Israel is in danger and surrounded by enemies takes on special significance.

“It’s less vivid for people my age who are thinking of making aliyah,” says Alon, now 26.

“For many of them, Israel is still a home and a place of refuge, but it’s also a place of great conflict. I also think they are more critical of Israel in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“And when you are more critical, you think twice about whether you really want to live there.”

Once a young Jewish person visits Israel and sees the country with his or her own eyes, those criticisms usually diminish.

“It’s a reality check,” he says “They are surprised that the country is so colorful and beautiful: ‘But it’s not perfect like they told me!’”

ASKED to list three top selling points that might induce young American Jews to make aliyah, Alon skips the traditional — pervasive Jewish culture, the incredible history, even the holy Wall — in favor of technology.

“Obviously, I would start with the technological, medical and scientific achievements: how we manage to accomplish so much in such a small country; produce so many patents; have more companies listed on NASDAQ than Germany or Japan.

“Israel understands that there are many bright young Jews out there who have a special place in their hearts for Israel,” Alon says. “I just read about an Israeli government project that scouts for computer geniuses in Europe and North America and invites them to join the hot new companies.”

He moves on to agriculture, emphasizing Israel’s ability to create more crops, vegetables and fruits with less water and less land. “You take technology and use it in a sophisticated way. You wouldn’t believe how many world delegations come to Israel to learn about agriculture.”

While the third enticement — military service — may have no practical application for young adults in the US, Alon says it forms the ethical and moral foundation of the country, and the individual.

“We send 75% of our population into the army at the age of 18. Most of these people develop maturity, a sense of responsibility and get a broader perspective on life.”

He should know.

“I have one very clear memory of military service,” Alon says. “I was about 19 or 20, and I was chosen to be the machine gun man. I remember this exercise, a live fire exercise, that we’d been training for all day.

“I’m running in the field, holding my machine gun and firing live bullets at all the targets. There are a lot of bullets! And I’m thinking, if I make one mistake and move my gun a little to the left or a little to the right, I could kill four or five guys.

“Why did they give me such a huge responsibility? What’s the meaning of it?”

He multi-tasks on his laptop, then answers his own question.

“The military gives you the opportunity to do big things at a young age. And this affects you profoundly. Even the soldiers who say to me, ‘We served for three years at a Palestinian checkpoint, and it was terrible,’ learned to value responsibility. And it changed them.”

ISRAEL is the Jewish state, the tangible “light unto the nations.” Yet Alon says Israel could learn a thing or two about Judaism from US Jewry. His secular family kept kosher and regularly attended services and celebrates holidays. But in Israel he would never give a d’var Torah, which he recently did at a meeting in Denver.

“Unlike American Jewish organizations, no secular or civilian organization in Israel would offer a d’var Torah at a staff meeting. It’s simply not done — which is kind of amazing.”

Alon says Israelis are imbued with an almost instinctive Judaism that can instill a sense of inferiority in US Jews.

“I’ll give you an example. I’ll meet someone here and he says, ‘Yoni, I was a Bar Mitzvah, I go to services every Shabbat and recite Kiddush in my home every Friday night.

“But when I went to Israel, I felt as if all the people around me were better Jews. They speak Hebrew. They celebrate Jewish holidays. They live in a Jewish environment. On Chanukah, they light the candles and eat sufganiot at home and in the workplace.’

“Yes, Israelis are doing more Jewish things, but sometimes they lack the depth of understanding behind their actions,” Alon says.

“I’ve discovered that American Jews often have a better knowledge of Judaism. In a way, I think the American Jewish identity is stronger than the Israeli identity.

“If someone here comes up to me and says ‘I’m Jewish,’ I’m not surprised to find out that he or she is actually practicing Judaism. In Israel, while people might eat donuts during Chanukah or dress up on Purim, they don’t really do anything else.”

Alon has become “much more Jewish” during the eight months he’s been in Denver than his previous 26 years in Israel.

“On Yom Kippur I went to five different synagogues: Temple Emanuel, Temple Sinai, Judaism Your Way, the HEA and The Jewish Experience. Each service was unique.

“My Jewish identity is stronger, and more structured. It’s a journey.”

North American Jewry has a great deal to contribute to Israel, particularly their ability to approach Judaism “outside the box,” Alon says.

“Jews here are much more open to different expressions of Judaism. You can attend Reform or Conservative or Reconstruction synagogues. People think outside the box when it comes to practicing their faith.”

It is his hope that the Jews he interacts with at the JCC, in Denver and throughout North America will introduce more religious pluralism to his country.

“You don’t always have to push aliyah, aliyah, aliyah,” Alon says. “The Jewish Agency recognizes that the best way to generate interest in the young is through gradual stages.

“Begin with a high school program. Follow up with Birthright and maybe year-long study. In the end, some might make aliyah. Who knows?”

SOME emissaries become so enamored with a placement that they adopt this new city or country as their home and never return to Israel.

Feigning elegiac mourning, Alon shares an Israeli joke.

“The shlichim, they never come back,” he paraphrases in atypical, heavily accented English. “They go outside Israel and stay there.

“And one day, even if there is a Jewish community on the moon, they will stay on the moon!”

Alon laughs at the implications, and his rendition.

“As a shaliach, I believe I was sent here to represent my country,” he adds thoughtfully. “But I will go home.”

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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