by Vivian Henoch

Who chooses the life of an emissary from Israel? Ask Nina Yahalomi Klevitsky. “Some people say I can’t keep a job,” she says with a smile, “But everything I’ve done in the past has led me to the Detroit community at this point in time.” Nina has been a teacher and a teacher supervisor both in a youth-at-risk high school and in a junior high. Prior to that, she ran the National Child and Youth at Risk program in Tel Aviv while completing three degrees: a BA in Government and Diplomacy and an MA in Public Policy from IDC Herzliya and a MPH in Emergency and Disaster Management from the Tel Aviv University. “For me, Shlichut – the national outreach program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)- always has been in my plans. In Israel, it’s very easy just to live your life, do the right thing: go to school, do the army, travel, study, get a job, raise a family. I’m really trying to fit those things into a pattern that makes life more interesting, challenging, exciting . . . and meaningful.”

For Nina, her husband Omer Yahalomi and two young daughters, Ella, 4, and Na’ama, 2, the choice to come to Detroit, 6,000 miles from home, was not an easy decision. “I loved every minute as a teacher. It was hard to leave in the middle of so many projects I had been working on with the kids and the teachers. It was hard to leave my parents, because they are so connected to the girls. But from the start, I had Omer’s buy in. “Listen to yourself for a second,” he told me. “Your reasons for not taking the job are all about other people. What about you?! Do something for yourself.” It was the right time for us, the girls are a perfect age to put them both into preschool here – and we’ve just passed one of my biggest worries and hurdles with them – they both love the preschool at Temple Israel.  (I ran out crying the first day, but they were okay!)

From Tzur Yitzhak (about an half hour north of Tel Aviv), the Yahalomi family is settling into their home in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Omer, an environmental engineer currently working for an Israeli company, will soon find his place of employment in Michigan. And, meanwhile he has enjoyed the break with the girls. “Everyone has been so warm and welcoming – hosting us, inviting us to dinners,” says Nina. “Jewish Detroit is amazing.”

In her words: Nina on life in Israel, career choices and her role as Shlicha

“If you’re not excited about things, it’s not worthwhile.”

myJewishDetroit:  What are five Hebrew words that describe you?

Wow, that’s hard. I need to think:

התלהבות (Hitlahavut) Enthusiasm: Because if you’re not excited about things, it’s not worthwhile.

 איזון (Ezun) Balance: Because balance is something I continually strive for in my family and career, study and work, life experience and routine.

משפחה (Mishpachah) Family: By extension, my family here includes the community. I feel I have joined an extended family here in Michigan.

יצירתיות (Y’tziratiyut) Creativity: As I define it, being open-minded, curious, creative in your thoughts.

 כוונה (Kavahah) Intention: If you have enthusiasm and balance and, if you are creative, then you have kavanah – purpose, intention – or a true meaning in what you do.

 myJD:  To clarify, for those who struggle with the Hebrew, please explain the words, shlicha vs. shaliah.

Shlicha is the feminine version of the word, shaliah is masculine and shlichim is the plural.

 myJD: In brief, what is your role as Senior Community Shlicha and Federation’s Community Outreach Developer?

The brief explanation: I am here to bring Israel to the community.

My husband, Omer, is an engineer, and I see myself as an engineer, so to speak. My role is to build bridges – people to people – between Israel and the community here. A typical day can be a visit to a school in the morning, then to a senior home to do a presentation, then to a meeting with the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC, then to a community-wide event or a party with NEXTGen in the evening. It’s non-stop, diverse, a way to explore every corner of the community and I love it. Since we’ve arrived in August, I’ve been meeting everyone I can, at as many organizations as possible.

I’m still in the learning, observing mode. I have no time to waste. My time here is limited to two or three years. My role as a community bridge is connect to people who want to know more about Israel, and to people who don’t know they want to know about Israel.

I am an emissary – a voice and face of Israel – not an ambassador. I don’t have a message sheet with talking points that I need to adhere to. It’s not like the government is telling me what the facts are and what the message is that I need convey to the community. I bring myself to this job. Without a script or political agenda. I chose to be here, and was matched to the Detroit Jewish community because of who I am.

myJD: As you wish, please share a little about your family and educational background

I grew up in a very Zionist home. My parents made Aliyah in the 70s from the former Soviet Union. (My mother is from Latvia, so if you tell her she’s Russian, it’s a big no-no).  Mom is 60; dad is 72. They made Aliyah separately; my mom was 16 and came to Israel with her family; my dad was a young adult and came alone. From the start, my dad was a part of the national movement as Israel was absorbing new olim (immigrants). In 1984, he had the privilege of lighting the torch on Yom Ha’Atzmaut on Mt. Herzel.

I have a younger sister – 26 years old – a talented artist who studies visual communication at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art. Growing up in a very Zionist home, we were encouraged to volunteer and became members and very involved in the Tzofim Youth Movement – Israel Scouts. That activity was almost more important than our studies in school – and my mom agreed because she figured we’d always get another chance to improve our studies, but never another opportunity like we had with the Scouts.

When I was 16, I became a member of the Israel Scouts’ summer delegation – the Friendship Caravan that toured the U.S. and Canada for three months. With Caravan, I was actually here in Detroit, visited campers at Tamarack and stayed with Molly Chernow and her family – who were my hosts.

That summer- traveling in the U.S. and seeing so many different Jewish communities involved in so many activities and organizations – changed my life. Up until then, coming from a Zionist home, my mission was to convince all Jews to live in Israel – and if they didn’t get there, I certainly would help them. That was my 16-year old mindset. But after that summer, something in me changed.  For the first time, I understood the strength of the Jewish community outside of Israel and, that, as a people, we need each other.

That was a big switch for me.  And for a time, I thought I wanted to be an ambassador. But I grew to realize that I didn’t want to live my life in other countries. My home base was and always will be Israel. So, I found a way to do both. At 17, after graduating high school, I spent a gap year in community service, in a program called Young Judaea, working and living together with Americans and Brits. That was another life changing experience, and some of my best friends today are from that program.

Then came my service in the army. I was a medic and a commander of a combat medic course. I am now an officer in the National Medical War Room and still serving in the reserves. After Ella was born, I was free to go, but no, I told them I’m not going anywhere. To me, it’s very mashmauti (meaningful) to serve. Now that I’m here in Michigan, I’m on hold again. I do feel that my work here is just as important for the country as the work we do in the National War Room. And, if G-d forbid, there’s a war, then I’ll have another choice to make.

myJD: How did you meet your husband, Omer?

We were together as 16-year-old teens in the Israel Scout’s Friendship Caravan. Omer was a good friend. When we were still kids, I gave him the designation of “husband” in my caller ID on my phone. But we didn’t start dating for real until we were 22. At first, I didn’t even want to date him because I thought he was too skinny! But my mom thought that was childish and stupid of me and told me to get over it. So, we started dating just as Omer was about to finish the army. He had made plans to go to South America with friends and invited me to come with him. And I said, if it’s not serious, let’s stop dating, because I don’t want to ruin the friendship we had. . . and so, here we are. Married six years in March.

myJD: What brought you to Detroit?

Working with the Jewish Agency, you don’t get to choose your assignment, but they try to find you the best match based on what they know about you and the community. They give you options, and you can decline. Years ago, Omer and I were invited from the Israel Scouts program to go to London. But the timing wasn’t right. This time around, they offered me Australia, and I said no thank you. When the option of Detroit came up, I got a call from Jenny at the Jewish Agency, advising me to go for the interviews. “There’s this community that’s a good fit for you – I think you’ll love it, and they’ll love you.” And of course, she was right.

I had four interviews: Initially, Rich Broder and Jen Levine from Federation with Yoav Raban and Noa Noff from Federation’s Partnership2Gether Region; they then came to my home for a visit; after that, an interview with Scott Kaufman; and finally, an interview with Federation’s Israel & Overseas leadership. It was quite a process, and the last interview was on Skype, where everyone’s face was a blur. It all felt right, but by the fourth interview I was a bit nervous, because I really wanted the assignment in Detroit.   

myJD: What do you want people to know about life in Israel today?

Living in Israel is complicated, but so is living anywhere else in the world. Every place has its own complexity. The difficulty or the challenge is to learn about that complexity, and to develop an understanding of where you are and the issues people face. Then you can decide for yourself where you stand.

People are not always what you think – or even what they mean; they may say they are politically right wing, but then they may lean left on economics. They may say they are more socialist than capitalist, then on the issues of security they may be more conservative. The point is that you can’t make assumptions. There’s a popular song in Israel with the message, “Don’t lock me in a box,” meaning don’t categorize me. When it comes to people and places, there is always so much more to learn and much more to explore.

I’m not here to tell people what to think about Israel, but I will say that their opinions should come from a knowledgeable base, not from ignorance—or from an indifferent point of view, which for me is the worst. So, my goal here is to share what I know, engage people in Israel-related conversations as best I can. I’m not talking extremes, here. Whatever I say or do, I’m not going to reach the 2% to the extreme right or the 2% extreme to the extreme left. But that leaves 96% in the middle with a wide spectrum of opinions. Everyone has something to say, and there’s always something new to learn in the dialogue.

myJD: What do you say to students who are troubled or conflicted about Israel’s politics?

I would encourage them to come and learn more. Having the facts — the knowledge of the issues — certainly can give you more understanding and confidence and possibly more empathy for others.

To me, the scariest thing is indifference — to not care at all. Regardless of the political map, I can work with people who care. Because they have this spark — this passion for Israel — and they choose to believe one thing or another. I may not agree with their opinion — but hopefully, we can have a conversation, however difficult that conversation can be. Those who don’t care about Israel are my greatest challenge to get them out of their comfort zone for a meaningful dialogue about the issues.

myJD: What do you tell people considering moving to Israel or making Aliyah?

I say baruchim habaim (blessed to those who come) — welcome! But do your research first, know where and why you are going, know your heart. I’m not going to solicit – but to those who want to come to Israel, I certainly welcome them with open arms. Part of my job as shlicha is to conduct Aliyah interviews in the community — people who are interested can come to me to start the process with the Jewish Agency.

myJD: What are your first impressions of moving here?

It’s weird living in another country. We went to Costco for the first time. Our girls were shocked to see sacks of sugar their size.

myJD: Biggest surprises?

The variety of animals in our backyard! We’ve seen deer, something that looks like a beaver (but it’s not a beaver), squirrels, ducks . . .  the yard is a zoo.  And another surprise, the grass grows really fast!

myJD: Best discovery?

All the wonderful people we’ve met!

myJD: Greatest challenge so far

The traffic! Turning left. There’s red, blinking red, there’s yellow, blinking yellow, there’s green and you still have to give the right of way to cars at the intersection. When I see a red light, I stop and there are people behind me honking! And then there’s the confusion of the Michigan “right” to make a left turn!

Favorites (so far)

Restaurant: It’s too early to tell and I’m open to suggestions. I’ve been to Leo’s and have tried a deep-fried pickle at Traffic Jam & Snug downtown.   

Place to meet for coffee: I don’t drink coffee, but I’d strongly recommend the kitchen on the second floor of the Federation building—come on up and meet me there.

Place to take kids:  The Detroit Zoo! We got a year-round family pass as a gift from my colleagues in the Israel and Overseas Department.

Vacation place: We’re settling in . . .  every day still feels like a vacation here. Back home, we love the Negev. We like to say we’re a “million-star-hotel” type of people. We put up our tent and love camping.

Hobbies/ Leisure Activities: Cooking, hiking, exploring 

Sport:  Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

FoodSteve Deli’s chicken soup! Reminds me of home.

Hebrew Expression: Davka: there’s no precise English translation, and it’s meaning can shift in context from sentence to sentence for emphatic or sarcastic effect meaning the opposite (or extra agreement) of what is said. Like, “She brought me blueberries, because davka, she knows I don’t like them.” Or “That’s davka a nice dress that you’re wearing.”

Guilty pleasure: Shopping at Target. There’s no equivalent in Israel. 

Never leave home without: Wet wipes 

Reading now: No time now! But I love to read and used to be a tola’at sfarim – a bookworm.   

Words to live by: Never stop exploring. Places, jobs, experiences . . .