Volume 3, Number 186
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Thursday-Monday, September 24-28, 2009


Israel shlicha specializes in bringing people together

By Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Shoshi Bogoch, the new Israel emissary stationed at the United Jewish Federation offices in Kearny Mesa, likes to bring diverse peoples together.  You might say it is in her genes.

Her mother is from an Afghan Jewish family; her father from a German Jewish family—Sephardic and Ashkenazic respectively.  Dark haired and dark skinned, Bogoch learned from an early age on that she and other people defied stereotypes.  “Goldberger?” people would ask upon hearing her maiden name.  “Are you sure?”

She grew up in Kfar Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem whose most famous resident is Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.  She described it as a place where Israelis of diverse backgrounds live together in harmony, and without separation.  Elsewhere in Israel, she said, Orthodox students go to yeshivas, while secular students go to public schools. In Kfar Adumim, on the other hand, all the children were schooled together, she said.

Describing herself and her husband Yoel, a biologist now doing postdoctoral work in skin development at UCSD, as “modern Orthodox,” Bogoch said she was exposed both to religious and secular influences in her childhood. She joined the Scouts and rose to the position of madrikha (leader) while in high school. 

Next, she entered the Israel Defense Forces, and after a battery of tests was given the rank of corporal and a job instructing soldiers who were school dropouts in Hebrew language, Israeli history, and English to help them earn a high school equivalency degree.

It was a challenging assignment for Bogoch, who is a petite woman.  For some reason all of her students were men, almost all of them were older than she was, and most of them did not want to be in the Army in the first place.

Don’t get the idea, however, that Bogoch could be intimidated.  She had the discipline of the IDF on her side, and if at times the soldiers were unresponsive to the carrot--her explanations that a good education would improve their job prospects in Israel—there was always the stick.  If soldiers refused to do their work, she could cancel their Shabbat leave, or require them to do extra physical training, or take such other disciplinary action. 

“It wasn’t that difficult,” Bogoch said, smiling.  She completed her hitch in the military as a sergeant, and then went to Hebrew University to pursue a degree in political science and a master’s in informal education.

She said although she was Orthodox—and might have studied at Bar-Ilan University which is run under Orthodox auspices—she preferred to go to Hebrew University, where she knew she would interact with people of many diverse backgrounds.

Bogoch said she believes many Israelis are too quick to label other people based on their appearance– to “put them in a desk drawer” –rather than taking the time to talk and to learn about each other.   If this is true of relationships among Israeli Jews, it is even more so in the relations between most Israeli Jews and Arabs, she said.

While at Hebrew University, Bogoch became interested in a program that taught Arab and Jewish kids about each other—involving joint activities at schools and other public places around the city.  As a volunteer and later as a board member of the organization, she helped to organize an art project in which children drew pictures depicting the relationships between Arabs and Jews and their hopes for future relationships.  The drawings were collated and mounted, and now are part of a traveling exhibition that has been seen in different world cities.

She met her husband at school, at an organization that is somewhat like a Hillel, but not exactly, she said.   Today they have four children—two boys and two girls ranging in age from 3 to 12—who have been growing up with many diverse cultures and traditions.  They have been exposed to the Afghan traditions of their maternal grandmother, the German traditions of their maternal grandfather, Canadian traditions of their father; modern Israeli traditions of their previous home in Jerusalem, and, now, they are being immersed in the American culture of San Diego.

After completing her master’s degree, Bogoch went to work for a community center in a neighborhood of Jerusalem.  Her job was to organize and supervise community projects – experience that Lisa Haney, UJF’s director of planning and allocations, later said she found particularly relevant when assessing Bogoch as a potential shlicha.  In San Diego, it is the shlicha’s job to originate and to implement programs that will help draw Jews of San Diego closer to Jews in Israel generally and in the partnership region of Sha’ar Hanegev particularly.

One of the programs that Bogoch supervised was a “time bank,” adapted from a model in New York, in which community members baby sat and did other errands for each other, receiving credits in time, which they could draw by requesting available services from other time bank members.

The babysitter, for example, might earn enough credits to have someone help her paint her house, Bogoch explained.

Today the program has enrolled nearly 1,000 people from the neighborhood who offer a wide variety of skills.   Bartering their time helps people in a depressed economy obtain services they might not otherwise be able to afford, said Bogoch.  But perhaps, even as important, the program brings together Jerusalemites who are isolated from each other, creating new social networks.

Another program which Bogoch supervised involved bringing senior citizens to the public schools, where they learned computer skills from high school students.  The youth received community service credits for tutoring their elders and the seniors learned skills easing their transition into the Internet age. 

Bogoch said Israeli schools sometimes can be rowdy, with students not nearly as deferential to their teachers as American students.  However, she said, the senior citizens

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Shoshi Bogoch

have had a salutary effect on this situation.  She said that respect for the elderly is still a feature of Israeli society, and that as a result of the seniors’ presence on the school grounds, the students behave more calmly.

A third program that was within Bogoch’s purview was arranging educator exchanges and partnerships between public schools in Jerusalem and Jewish congregational schools in Westchester County, New York.  Israeli and American teachers worked on a joint holiday curriculum, for example developing lesson plans about Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day.)  Bogoch said she hopes with the help of Jewish school teachers to develop here an Israel curriculum.

Bogoch had the opportunity to visit the partnership schools in Westchester County and “I got a chance to know what Federation is, what JCC is…”  She and her husband had visited North America on their honeymoon, meeting his relatives in Canada and her uncle in San Francisco, but the Westchester County experience was her first working trip.

Although the community center at which Bogoch worked served some of the same functions as the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, it did not have a swimming pool, nor a gym –“Oh, I wish we could have such facilities,” she exclaimed.  The community center in Jerusalem is a building with offices and a lecture hall and “we have use of the (public) Bell Garden nearby … and the basketball courts at the schools,” she said.

Currently, there are exchanges between the San Diego Jewish Academy and the high school of Sha’ar Hanegev – a program that has developed some very close relationships.   Bogoch said she hopes to be able to expand this kind of program to other schools.

“I believe that the personal connections between the San Diego Jewish community and the Israeli community—which for us is Sha’ar Hanegev—are the best ways to connect.”

She said that Israelis and San Diegans learn from each other.  “Take a student from Sha’ar Hanegev (which is comprised mainly of secular kibbutzim) and he will learn from students here why and how to celebrate Chanukah or Purim or Pesach” and perhaps will decide to investigate Judaism further, she said. At the same time, the Israeli students will provide perspectives on the Israeli customs, holidays and way of life.

The Jewish Agency for Israel tests and trains people in a part-time program spaced over a year to become emissaries (shlichim), making certain through examinations that they are well grounded in Israeli history and culture and have a good command of the language of the country to which they will be dispatched. 

Part of this process is an intensive 2 ½ week program lasting “from morning until evening” in which JAFI instructs potential shlichim about the various programs that are available to Diaspora Jews who want to visit Israel, ranging from Operation Birthright, which brings people under 25 to Israel on an organized educational tour to longer-term, live-in-Israel, study programs, to immigration assistance.  Besides about programs for individuals, the shlichim also are taught about many varieities of programs bringing together Israeli and overseas organizations. 

San Diego’s UJF, for example, sends groups of adults and teens on trips to Israel.  A women’s mission will be going to Israel and to Petra, Jordan, November 1-10.  Another adult trip is a bike-a-thon from the Galilee in the northern part of Israel south to Sha’ar Hanegev in the northern Negev Desert,  with participants collecting pledges for each mile traveled as a way to help Sha’ar Hanegev raise funds for a rocket-resistant high school.

Although the Jewish Agency for Israel certifies the shlichim, it is up to individual Federations in the United States to decide which of them, if any, they want to hire. Bogoch said that with the slumping worldwide economy, many Federations that participated in JAFI’s shlichim program before, opted not to spend money on the emissary’s salaries this year.

San Diego, however, opted to continue the program which had brought to the United Jewish Federation Bogoch’s succession of predecessors:  Yaacov Schneider, Erez Strasburg, and Eyal Dagan.

UJF’s Lisa Haney traveled to Israel to interview candidates for the position at UJF San Diego, visiting Bogoch both at her office and with her family at home.  Subsequently members of the UJF board interviewed her via Skype.  

“In order to come with such a big family you have to be very dedicated to the idea,” Bogoch said.  “I told the board members that every one of the kids is going to walk into his class and be an Israeli and they will be small shlichim in all these places—the youth movement, the class, the park – all kinds of places.  And my husband is going to make friends.

“It-is a six-for-one,” she quipped. 

Harrison is editor and publisher of San Diego Jewish World. Email: editor@sandiegojewishworld.com

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