Growing up in a household of olim (immigrants) from Ethiopia, Natan Sharansky's values of Zionism and activism were present throughout my life. I grew up constantly listening to stories about Natan -- about his fights for equality, Zionism, his aliyah struggles, and much more that connected my family to his story.
As Natan prepares to receive the Israel Prize -- the state's highest cultural honor -- on Israeli Independence Day on April 19, I am proud and honored to share my personal connection to Natan through my family, my work, and my own encounters with him.
My family came to Israel as a part of Operation Moses in 1984. The struggle of being an immigrant in Israel is complex, and my family -- especially my parents -- decided to take active steps to make Israel a better place for my siblings and I. When I was younger, I recall my father's conversations about Natan, and the connection he felt to him due to the common ground of being a Jewish immigrant to Israel. Natan's activism inspired my father to take action and he became more involved in the local struggle towards equality and creating a better society. Today, I feel as if my family's legacy, which was inspired by Natan, is to stand up for what I believe in and move towards a better Israel for everyone, no matter where you come from.
Today, I serve as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Northwestern University Hillel, as part of a special shlichut (emissary work) initiative that was nurtured by Natan. The Israel Fellows program has expanded to 77 Fellows serving 150 campuses around the world. In 2016-17 alone, the Fellows had one-on-one interactions with 17,000 Jewish students and attracted more than 37,000 students to Israel-education events. The Israel Fellows are the face of shlichut on campus, in a crucial component of The Jewish Agency's network of more than 2,000 Israelis emissaries worldwide.
I started my shlichut almost three years ago, arriving at an interesting time on campus -- a few months after a BDS resolution had passed for the first time in Northwestern's student government. Since then, the pro-Israel community on campus evolved and now is thriving with five different Israel-related groups, three Israel interns, an Israel education strategic plan for each quarter of the year, different immersive Israel experience programs such as Birthright Israel, NU Perspectives trip, I-Engage Seminar, Onward Israel, and Masa Israel Journey, as well as a visible growth in Israel engagement numbers.
As the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, I work every day to encourage students to find their own Israel connection. I do that through creating different programs with students so that the Northwestern community can learn about different aspects of Israel. Another aspect of my work is the personal relationships that I'm forming with the students, through one-on-one conversations and interactions about Israel and their personal connection to it. Through these conversations, I am empowering students to explore Israel and find their own connection with the Jewish State, and at the same time I'm evolving and learning from my colleagues and students. During my shlichut , I have found a community that enables me to share my connection with Israel, and to show that community why it is truly OUR Israel. I'm thankful for that.
One moment I'm grateful for was having the honor to attend a March 7 event in New York City that celebrated Natan's nine years as The Jewish Agency's Chairman of the Executive. I was so inspired by the people who were in the room honoring Natan -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, various Members of Knesset, former U.S. President George W. Bush, CEO of The Jewish Agency Alan Hoffmann, and other Jewish Agency leaders. It was clear that everyone truly admires and looks up to Natan and appreciates his work and contribution to the Jewish people in Israel and around the world. Even though Natan is a well-known leader, I still feel like I can go up to him and say "hello," and that he will care about what I have to say. It's humbling, impressive, and unimaginable how relatable and down to earth he is.
Being an emissary, especially in North America during this time on campus, is not an easy job. But with all the challenges mentioned above and the complexity, it is definitely the most meaningful position I could have asked for. Knowing that I'm making a difference with the Jewish people every day, connecting Israel to the Diaspora, and doing it all under the leadership of Natan makes the work particularly fulfilling. The leader that Natan is for the Jewish people, the person that he is, his actions throughout the years in Israel and outside of it, and his strong sense of Zionism all make him well-deserving of the Israel Prize. I'm proud to say that I was privileged to grow up inspired by his values and am now working under his leadership.
Simcha Masala is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Northwestern University Hillel.