By David Zenlea

So much has been said since October 7, and so much continues to be said every day Israel’s war against Hamas continues. Yet one thing that is perhaps not acknowledged enough amidst all the reporting, punditry, and spin is simply how much this conflict hurts. It’s something everyone in this community seems to feel—an ever- present heaviness that transcends denomination or political orientation. 

Lior Zisser-Yogev, who moved with her family from Israel to Detroit last summer to serve as shlichah (emissary) to our Jewish community, unfortunately knows this hurt better than most. Her brother Ilay Zisser (עילי זיסר), a 27-year-old soldier with the elite Sayeret Matkal division (and a former Tamarack camper), was one of the fallen on that terrible Shabbat. 

“It makes it personal, makes it real…for a lot of people,” she noted, adding, “I didn’t want to be that figure. But it just reminds people of the price that we’re paying in Israel.”

Yet if Zisser-Yogev is a reminder of what we have lost during this war, she is also an embodiment of Jewish and Israeli strength. Not, mind you, the Rambo-like caricature of Israeli strength often presented in the media—although she does happen to be a veteran of one of the IDF’s integrated male-female combat battalions—but rather through her endurance and her devotion to bringing our community together. She spoke movingly about her brother at the community’s Israel solidarity event on October 9 and, after taking time to sit shivah with her family, returned to Detroit to continue her work. In recognition of her leadership, she was included in Detroit Jewish News’ “36 under 36” list for 2024.

At the community Bring Them Home Vigil for the Hostages on November 7, 2023.

Zisser-Yogev was warm and thoughtful when I sat down with her at her Federation office in early February. She reflected upon the difficulties—and yes, the hurt—of the past months, but also her plans for Israel education going forward, her appreciation for the Detroit community, and how her personal and professional goals intertwine.

“You have Detroit written all over your profile.”

I grew up in Givat Ella, which is Detroit’s partnership region, right? I am here because 22 years ago I was lucky enough to participate in Federation’s Israeli camper program in Tamarack. 2002 was the first year that the Teen Mission couldn’t come to Israel, because it was the  second Intifada, so it was decided to bring Israeli teens to participate as campers in Tamarack. I was lucky enough to be selected to be in that first group. 

I spent the summer here when I was 14, and it really just changed my entire life course. I loved it. I wanted to come back, and I did come back two years later as a counselor-in-training. I knew that after the army, I wanted to go back to work in Jewish summer camps or Jewish communities.

I joined the Israeli army in 2006, in the midst of the Second Lebanon War. I was a combat soldier in Caracal—a combat infantry unit for boys and girls. After two and a half years of service, I started screening for the Jewish Agency’s schlichuyot, for summer camps, but also long-term community. I got accepted to both. I spent summer in New York at Young Judaea summer camp, and then spent two years in Illinois as a schlichah. I really enjoyed it. 

Going back to Israel, I was looking for a way to continue doing what I love, which is community work and making a difference. I went to study political science and education at Hebrew University. I worked for the Jewish Agency, and then I worked for the government for the past eight years. 

When I met my husband, Gil, maybe the first thing he knew about me was that I was a schlichah in the past and that I was going to be a schlichah again in the future. “So if we’re gonna move forward with the relationship, you might have to sign a waiver saying, ‘I’m agreeing to relocate to any type of Jewish community around the world.’” And he was really on board.

Working for the Israeli government became kind of crazy in the past couple of years, so I said, this was a good time to go back to doing what I love. When I started interviewing for communities, the person from the Jewish Agency who read my bio said, “OK, you have Detroit written all over your profile.”

I feel like something very unique about this community and this Federation is that they’re always looking to see what else can we do? And how can we grow? It’s very open to new ideas. If there’s a good idea, you can make it happen. Unlike other communities, I feel like agencies and organizations are always wanting to partner and come together as a community. We’ve seen it since October 7, but I know that happened even before. There’s just a big sense of togetherness here. 

“This nightmare came to be.”

When I came here, I had a vision and a whole plan that I wrote down on the whiteboard in my office—things that I’m planning on doing this year. I was telling myself, “acharei hachaggim—after the High Holidays—that’s when things start to roll.” And we just didn’t have acharei hachaggim. We didn’t have it. On the last day of Sukkot, this nightmare came to be. 

I focused my entire energy on bringing the community together to show solidarity and support of Israel, not knowing that when the event was going to take place, I would be the one needing that support and solidarity. Because I lost my brother on October 7, but we didn’t know until October 9 [the same day that the Detroit Stands with Israel event was held at Shaarey Zedek]. 

“One day at a time.”

I feel like everything I do now needs to fit certain criteria. We were just talking about planning the Yom Ha’Atzmaut event for the community; every year, it’s a big celebration of Israel. It’s a birthday party—it’s exciting and fun and family friendly. And this year, I don’t know, even if all 136 hostages will return home, how can we celebrate? I have to look at everything through this lens right now. Programs that I do also get this twist. I’m trying to keep things more to community programs that are educational, that are bringing people together. To give a more in-depth understanding of what Israel is going through right now. 

Lior shares insights on Israel and the unique role women have played in the war with Hamas at the Women’s Philanthropy Growing Our Understanding event.

We do have community-wide programs, but mostly what I try to do is get to targeted groups and to speak to their level. Just last night, I was a part of a Hillel of Metro Detroit class on Israel. A few weeks ago, we did a program for women on growing our understanding and talking about the conflict. In two weeks, I’m doing a class for a congregation’s adult education class on the conflict between Hamas and Israel. A lot of educational programs for smaller groups. I’m working with the community to reach out to as many people as possible. I will come for free to your organization to give a lecture or a discussion about Israel. I come to bring content, but I’m also making those connections, making sure that these people can be involved and engaged in different ways. We can’t all talk about politics and current events all the time—sometimes you need for your soul to do fun cultural events. We did charcuterie boards for Tu B’svhat, which was fun. 

I’m starting the series with JLearn on political public policy in Israel. It’s starting in March, if anyone wants to sign up. That’s one thing I knew I wanted to do even before getting here because I came from the government. How does the Israeli government actually work? What are the best practices happening there? There are not a lot, but they’re there. (I’m kidding.)

With our current Detroit community Shinshinim (young Israeli emissaries).

I try to stay as busy as I can, but it’s very challenging to be away from my family and Israel. I also try to balance [work and home life]—we just moved six months ago, my kids are still getting used to a new school with new friends and learning English, and my husband is the anchor of the house—thank G-d for him. But it’s a challenge. And with this huge weight on our hearts, it’s even a bigger challenge. So I try to take it one day at a time. 

“I want to tell my story to as many people as possible.”

A colleague said, “Your story really made me understand how close to home this is.” It’s right here. It just reminds people of the price that we’re paying in Israel, and how important it is to show solidarity and support and send our thoughts and prayers—and sometimes even our budget—to Israel to help them come through this difficult time. This is really nothing that Israel has ever faced in the past, even in the Yom Kippur War. October 7 was an attack on civilians, civilians in their homes, and at a festival celebrating life. It’s a completely different thing. And I feel like the community here feels that it’s different, which is why I think we’ve seen such incredible support and people coming up to say we stand with Israel. 

Lior pays tribute to her brother Ilay Zisser (עילי זיסר) of
blessed memory at the community Israel solidarity event on October 9, 2023.

I’m just happy to be around as many people as I can and talk to as many people as possible. I feel like it’s my schlichut, but also personally, I want my brother’s name, Ilay Zisser, to never be forgotten. I want to sanctify his name and his memory. And I feel like the more I tell about him, the more people will remember his name and know who he was and the price that he paid to protect people in Israel and to fight terror.

“It makes us feel like we are not alone.”

People have been asking what they can do for Israel that’s tangible, and not just send their money. For a long time, I didn’t know what to say because people already contribute so much to the Emergency Campaign, and this contribution for Israel is extremely helpful and will definitely support the country. But I feel like people want to do something to personally connect.

For me, even before I heard about my brother, people made sure to reach out and say, “How are you doing? Are you okay? We’re thinking about you.” 

Life in Israel is different now. It’s a different country, a bereaved country. I can tell you that having people call us or invite us over for dinners, those little things make us feel like we’re not alone. I have a community here. I am so grateful for every person that invited us over for dinner or lunch or showed up with cookies or flowers. The thought that someone’s thinking of you. 

“Having a true relationship with Israel is understanding those complexities.”

Before October 7, I was the first to criticize Israel’s policy or government or statements of certain politicians. As an Israeli, a very devoted Zionist, I would be the first to criticize. I feel like the Jewish community here was always on the balance of, Is it okay for us to criticize Israeli government if we support Israel? What do we say about Israel’s policy? That’s a tension that was always there. October 7 put that discussion on hold, because you say, OK, no matter what, I am standing with Israel.

I feel like having a true connection to Israel is understanding those complexities and also accepting them and wanting to make those connections and have those dialogues. You don’t have to think Israel is perfect in order to support it—you can speak up to try and make it a better place. 

I was always of the mind that even if Jewish people outside of Israel are not citizens, they can speak their minds. Not just their minds—they can direct their donations to where they believe Israel should go. It’s not like the Jewish communities here are donating to the Israeli government; they’re donating to NGOs and civil organizations. I feel like once you decide to be a part of this conversation, you’re even more engaged and involved and connected to Israel.