Each year, the Jewish Agency of Israel sends more than 1,500 Israeli emissaries — shlichim, including shinshinim (young ambassadors) — to communities and camping programs around the world to strengthen Jewish identity and connection to Israel. This year, of all years, Yiftah Leket was selected out of more than 10,000 applicants – placed in a premium position on a senior route with only a couple of dozen shlichim – and matched most appropriately in Michigan with the Detroit Federation.
While we were still “Covid cocooning” in the warm days of early September, “Netflixing” on our couches, Zooming through workdays, and social distancing together for picnics on our patios, Yiftah and Paz were busy at work – unpacking boxes, settling into their new place in West Bloomfield, learning the names of new colleagues and navigating the streets and ways of our community, 6,000 miles from their home in Israel.
All in good stride, Yiftah explains that he and Paz have taken their leap of faith with a mutual desire for an educational challenge and an adventure together. “It’s been our dream for the past few years to get out of our comfort zone and immerse ourselves in a new culture. When we first heard about Detroit, I admit we were somewhat hesitant, given the choice of several other communities. But, after all was said and done, Detroit became our first choice. From the start of our interviews, we felt the warmth of the community and a genuine interest in the wellbeing of our family. The feeling was so strong, you may call it beshert (meant to be). We fell in love with the community.”
First impressions: In conversation with Yiftah Leket
Yiftah: I get that question more often than you’d think and, and in many ways, these two different paths allow me to hold a wider role in the world – a part of me that holds the duty of facing reality and another part that holds the duty of creating a new/better reality. In the balance, my deep identity is an educator. I understood that when I was at the end of my eight-year obligatory service, thinking what path I should take. I came to the understanding that in the Army, people serve to accomplish an operational mission, while for me – (the growth of) the people themselves was always the mission.
myJewishDetroit: What Hebrew words would you use to describe your personal drive and motivation for your work today?
אַהֲבָה (Ahava) Love: Of course, it’s essential and everyone strives for it, but I also believe love is a tool for learning, growing and leading. Working from love – acting out of love – is the most powerful tool you have to create change.
תְּשׁוּקָה (T’shuka) Passion: I believe that any meaningful and authentic action must come from a place of passion. I have built a career driven by passion – the passion of educators and students, as well.
הִתבּוֹנְנוּת (Hitbon’nut) Observation: As an educator, I learned that the foremost important ability is the ability to listen. Learning by observation, listening very carefully to others and to my own inner voice (even when it hurts) has led to insights that have shaped who I am today.
מִשְׁפָּחָה (Mishpachah) My family always has been the wind beneath my wings My partnership with Paz is my compass and our parenthood is what continues to give us strength together. Our daughter, Ella, allows me to see the world again through her eyes. I am proudest – and most fulfilled in life –in my identity as a father.
myJewishDetroit: To clarify, for those who struggle with the Hebrew words shaliach and shlicha please explain.
Shaliach is the masculine version of the word; shlicha is the feminine version and shlichim is the plural.
myJewishDetroit: How would you describe your role as shaliach?
I see my role as multi-dimensional: Bringing Israel to life – in a face-to-face, people-to-people exchange as I grow in experience as a member of the Jewish community here. As a shaliach, I am more than a vehicle of information about Israel; I have an individual voice and I am here to use that voice to provide context and perspective in what people hear and what they want to learn about Israel. I am here for coffee and conversation, raising and answering questions, creating and hosting events, responding to needs, building partnerships that turn to lasting friendships, strengthening our community connections to Israel — all this while meeting the challenges of navigating the uncharted territory of a world pandemic.
(As if on cue – Yiftah’s cell phone rings. It’s Jane Sherman–legendary Detroit leader and champion of Israel. Yiftah excuses himself to take the call and responds to her with the promise that he’ll get back to her within the hour – getting the answer to her question from the Israeli Embassy. Returning to our interview he says, in half-jest, “You’ve just seen it here, my first “official” act as your community shaliach.”)
myJewishDetroit: Knowing that first impressions mean everything, what has your experience been in your first few weeks here in Jewish Detroit?
First impressions have lived up and exceeded everything we hoped to find here. We had heard a lot beforehand about the warmth of the community and its close ties to Israel. We had met a number of people on the Federation staff to know enough about the importance of our role in the great place we were headed . . . but the moment we got here, even in our first weeks of our quarantine, we literally had piles of love delivered to our door. Every day we had visitors bringing us meals and toys for Ella. It was amazing to meet so many well-wishers asking us what we needed or how they could help. What an example of community! We knew right away that we had chosen well when we decided to come to Detroit.
On early influences and becoming a Shaliach
myJewishDetroit: What drew you to the role of an emissary for Israel?
This is not on my CV, but public service with a deep connection to Israel is in my DNA. My parents were shlichim when I was kid and, from the age of 3 to 7, my family lived in Los Angeles. My father, Kobi Leket (now retired), had a career in the WZO (World Zionist Organization). He started as a regional emissary for the U.S. West Coast and returned to Israel to become Director of the Advocacy Department. My mother, Shoshi Leket, held a career in public service and worked for years as head of the tourist office for the municipality of Jerusalem.
My uncle, Yehiel Leket, also had a long career in public service, working at the helm of the WZO, the Jewish Agency and JNF (The Jewish National Fund).
myJewishDetroit: Please tell us a little more about your family and where you grew up?
I was born in Jerusalem, the “middle child” between two sisters; aside from the three years my family lived in California, I grew up in Maccabim-Reut, a town in Central Israel about 20 miles southeast of Tel Aviv. My parents still live nearby in Modi’In. For the past 15 years, I’ve been in Tel Aviv, and with Paz for nine years there. My older sister now lives in Amsterdam, and my younger sister is a schoolteacher in Jerusalem.
myJewishDetroit: What inspired you to become a teacher?
It feels that everything in my background has pointed the way. Thinking back to my childhood, I would say that my educational career began in the 4th grade when I became part of the Israeli Youth Movement with the Young Maccabees. I served as a counselor, then went on to various leadership roles before I entered the IDF. I became a cadet in the Israel Airforce Pilot Course, then a commander of operational training on the F-16I. Flight instruction was the highlight of my military career and I have continued my service in the reserves as a flight instructor.
I was 27 when I retired from the Army to be a Reserves pilot. Wondering what was next and what I was going to do in the world, and, as many young Israelis coming out of the Army choose to travel abroad, I spent almost a year in South America. That’s when I found my inner voice that said I needed to follow my passion and go into education. I came back home to get my Bachelor’s in Education in Tel Aviv. For the past eight years, I have been a teacher at Geula High School in Tel Aviv. More than a school, Geula is an educational community serving students from a diversity of backgrounds – Jewish, Muslim and Christian Arab students, as well as foreign workers, refugees and students with hearing impairments.
At Geula, I was in a role I loved – fortunate to work with an amazing principal and staff. I became an advisor in a specialized program serving as a homeroom teacher and mentor on a three-year journey with 12 students. Working one-on-one, starting with students in the 10th grade, I had the privilege to become a part of their families (sometimes in a parental role), grow those relationships into friendships, counsel when needed – and seeing them achieve every step along the way to graduation.
Together with my principal, I also co-founded Learning Through Internship (LTI), a program inspired by the American movement known as Big Picture Learning. Since its founding, LTI has been adopted by the JDC and the Israeli Ministry of Education to be implemented nationwide with the goal of promoting social mobility in our society.
Through my own journey as an educator, I also developed a love of philosophy. Two years ago, I earned my Master’s in Philosophy, specializing in Science and Digital Culture at Tel-Aviv University. What I love most about philosophy, is that it allows me to deal with the biggest and yet smallest questions of my life, of our life. I believe that education is all about that – trying to investigate big questions, doing so through the lenses of specific subjects that represent those questions in reality.
myJewishDetroit: At 39, you’ve packed a lot into your career. What’s NOT on your CV? What do you do for fun?
Well, the short answer is I just love to explore everything the world has to offer. For example, I do a lot of extreme sports: scuba diving, snowboarding, skydiving, surfing . . . and horseback riding! I also love to cook, I paint and play the guitar. . . so, I feel well prepared and ready to explore all possibilities here in Detroit. (Maybe I should try golf??)
On navigating the unknown: coping with Covid and social distancing
myJewishDetroit: You’ve arrived in Michigan to face challenges no one would ever imagine for you and your family. So far, what are your first impressions and how are you coping with the constraints of our current situation?
We spoke about the warm welcome of the community – that’s been our anchor and a tremendous comfort. In Israel, we’ve lived through a lot of disasters and threats to our security. We consider ourselves to be resilient. But when you choose to live abroad, you expect to leave space for yourself to gain some perspective on the issues you leave behind and adapt to the new circumstances and opportunities you find ahead. We don’t have a map for this. Covid is worldwide. We are living in a historic time – all in the same situation together. In some ways, it feels like a shared fate – a destiny on the cusp of sweeping changes. I’m taking a lot of mental notes.
In our new home in West Bloomfield, I think we feel more comfortable than we would be in Israel right now. For sure, we’re impressed with the responsibility that people take for caring about each other here. Almost everyone we meet wears a mask and follows the protocols for social distancing. And that gives us the confidence that we’re staying safe.
myJewishDetroit: How are navigating your way forward while maintaining balance of caution and action?
Most meetings have been on Zoom, of course. But personal contact is essential to me. I’m striving for that. On the other hand, it’s important for me to feel comfortable, myself, and for others to be comfortable with me. It’s a fine balance between staying safe medically and staying healthy emotionally. I think the way for me to do it is to put on the glasses of the pandemic, and choose the way forward, asking people what makes them comfortable and go from there.
I have an office at Federation, though most of the staff is still working from home. I, myself, have been in the building only a handful of times, just to get settled. For new staff members just coming onboard, it’s especially difficult to enter an organization, get the pace and culture of the work. We’re all starting with a blank slate, feeling our way, getting to know one another and meeting the community we serve.
myJewishDetroit: Since your arrival, what have been the greatest surprises, challenges, best discoveries?
Biggest surprise: the clear, clean air! And the space and abundance of natural beauty right outside our door. We have a garden, and our house is surrounded by trees, birds, squirrels . . . it’s very exciting! We’re a ten-minute drive from parks and nature preserves. The other night I was thrilled to see a deer.
We came here in September, on the brink of winter, so we try to take in every minute of sun and fresh air as we can and get outdoors at least once a day. As a family, we continue to do happy things together, meeting people as much as possible, gathering in our garden, enjoying the great big hug of our new community. . . that all helps us to relax and just breathe.
Another surprise. Discovering the hospitality of the Midwest. We expected the Jewish community to connect and welcome us. But there’s also something about the Midwest that is genuinely friendly. People on the street say hello when they walk by. Workers, waiters and receptionists treat you with kindness . . . everybody is so nice. It’s not always so easy to accept people like us in the community and it’s a very cool thing to discover here.
On the strength of Jewish Detroit and its Israel connections
myJewishDetroit: What do you see as our community’s greatest strengths?
When you hear people in Detroit talk about Israel, you hear people who really care about what happens there. Their voices and viewpoints may be different – even critical and challenging – but even those tough conversations about Israel come from a place of love. I prefer these kinds of discussions. In my mind, both sides have validity and a place of strength.
Another point of strength in Jewish Detroit is the personal connection that has begun and is maintained in Michigan’s Partnership2Gether Region of the Central Galilee. Through Federation’s Israeli Camper Program at Tamarack Camps, missions and cultural exchanges – as well the friendships that have grown over 25 years, those connections have become a solid foundation for a next generation of community leadership.
myJewishDetroit: In a nutshell, what do you want people to know about Israel today?
First, that there is more to discover . . . more identities, more places, more narratives. I think that it’s important that people hear from me that whatever their current opinion of Israel is today, there are those in Israel who also share that opinion.
Israel is not a monolith. It’s not all black and white as the news may paint it. It’s all colors and shades of grey. I would like people to see what’s happening in Israel today as a sign of strength and change. We’re not crumbling, we’re still a young country in motion, building and rebuilding. And we need our strong connection to communities worldwide. Now more than ever.
Words to live by:
The right question is not what would you like to do, but who would you like to be.
“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.” -Theodore Isaac Rubin