Visiting WZO official outlines outreach to diaspora communities

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Simcha Asaf Leibovich of the World Zionist Organization-North America, will be in St. Louis next week to meet with administrators of Jewish schools and programs as part of an intensified effort to reach out to the Jewish community outside Israel.

Leibovich, 62, has served as dean of informal education at Orot-Academic College for Education and Givat Washington College of Education for more than three decades. For 30 summers, he ran the Conservative movement’s Mercaz, the educational programming center of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

Today, Leibovich oversees the North American operation of the World Zionist Movement (WZO), which was founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Since its inception, WZO has worked to enhance the impact of Zionist ideology and activity in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, a role that will bring him to St. Louis on Feb. 19 for several days.

The Jewish Light caught up with Leibovich at his office in New York for a phone interview in advance of his visit.

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What do you hope to convey while you are in St. Louis?

The WZO has 150 educational shlichim, or teacher-emissaries, in various cities in North America. They are professional teachers who come to teach for three or four years in the day-school system.  We bring to American cities trained teachers who are knowledgeable about Israel and Zionism. That is one of our goals in coming to St. Louis. We want to discuss bringing such teachers to the community. These are very professional teachers who have background in working with American youngsters. They speak good English, and they work with teaching Hebrew and about Israel and Judaic studies.

How do you want to expand the role of these teachers?

We want to make this a bigger project. Originally, it was just for day schools, but now we want to bring some of these teachers to afternoon Hebrew schools, weekend synagogue religious schools and other Jewish educational programs. In some cases, it can be a joint venture with teachers not only in the Hebrew or religious school, but serving as a youth director.

What new challenges do Jewish educators from Israel face in teaching about Israel and Zionism when there is so much negative coverage and criticism of Israel in much of mainstream media?

We decided not to try to answer the negative criticism,  because no matter what we say, there will be the coverage of complaints by, and about, the Palestinians. You will not see much coverage about the rocket attacks coming from Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal, or the fact that Israeli hospitals are taking in wounded patients from the conflict in Syria. We do bring these facts out, but not in an apologetic or defensive way. They are facts.

So how do you change the focus from the negative?

We try to broaden the conversation. We make the approach real big. We teach what Israel brings to the world, such as irrigation systems, helping with new start-up companies in a vigorous economy to show the positive sides of Israel, which most of the kids are not getting these days.  

Have Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel helped change how American youth respond to the Jewish State?

Thank God for Taglit-Birthright. When the American kids come to Israel for the first time, many of them are literally shocked to learn just how positive Israel and its accomplishments and contributions to the betterment of the entire world are. The program works both ways. We send teachers to American communities, and you send your kids to Israel under Taglit-Birthright. It is a two-way street that is very constructive.

What other groups does WZO seek to engage in addition to young students at Jewish and other schools?

We reach out to Jews who came to the United States from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were, and are, passionate Zionists but may not be active in their local communities. There are also many Israelis who have moved to the United States to whom we reach out and re-engage. We also have a new Hebrew Language Council, which is spreading the knowledge and teaching of the Hebrew language in North America. 

What does WZO hope to accomplish with the Hebrew Language Council?

Our goal is to lead a movement of Hebrew-speakers and Hebrew-lovers in the United States and Canada, a movement that will connect people to the Jewish culture, religion and language. We know that Judaism is not just a religion. It is a very rich culture and a unifying force is the very ancient language of Hebrew, which was revived as the language of the State of Israel as one of the many modern miracles that resulted from Zionism. 

Has membership in the WZO and its branches increased or decreased in recent years?

We have experienced impressive growth. The Reform movement’s ARZA, Association of Reform Zionists of America, and the Conservative movement’s Mercaz programs have drawn in members from these movements and made them a part of the original WZO. There are also a growing number of Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregations being established in Israel, which has also helped strengthen our ties to these communities.