Israeli emissary is supporting Jewish students on 2 R.I. campuses


We can’t show you a picture of Tal. We can’t even tell you her last name. We can say she’s 25 and grew up in Israel, but we’re discouraged from naming her hometown.

Tal served in the Israeli military from 2016 to 2018, but that’s all we can say about it. She is now the shlichah – an emissary from Israel – for two different college campuses in the Ocean State, but we can’t identify which ones.

These are new rules, drafted by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the organization that chooses and supervises shlichim in the United States. None of these identifiers would have been a problem when Tal came to Rhode Island in August. But after Hamas’ attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, and the tidal wave of domestic antisemitism that followed, the agency intensified security for its shlichim.

Here’s what we can say: Tal has yearned for this job for many years. Her journey to the United States felt impossible in the wake of COVID-19, which shut down the Jewish summer camps where she had hoped to work.

“In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to be a shlichah,” Tal said during a recent interview conducted in English. “I wanted to be part of something important and impactful.”

But Tal has another passion: making movies. As a teenager, she was cast in a high school play about incarcerated women. She relished her role as an inmate with a dissociative disorder. A week after the performance, two strangers approached Tal to praise her performance.

Tal studied communications and media at an Israeli university, focusing on video production. But she had no interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking until she took a photography course.

“I remember telling my friends, ‘I won’t touch a camera,’ ” she says with a laugh. “But I fell in love. I can’t imagine going anywhere without a camera.”

Tal also met like-minded students, despite the limitations of COVID. She socialized with other communications students through WhatsApp chats, learning about their many overlapping interests.

“I found my crew,” she says. “I think those friends are my cup of tea, so I’m hoping to keep them close.”

Tal had all but given up on her shlichah ambitions when a listing appeared on Facebook for a JAFI fellowship. She applied, interviewed and was shocked to receive her posting.

Despite several trips to Europe, Tal had never set foot in the United States. Incredibly, she had heard of Rhode Island, thanks to episodes of the adult cartoon series “Family Guy.”

“Most people don’t appreciate Rhode Island, but everything is so beautiful. I fell in love with it,” Tal says of her five months living here. She impishly adds: “It’s not that hard to make me happy.”

But in October, Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel sent shockwaves around the world. Tal works for two chapters of Hillel, and she felt a dramatic shift in atmosphere.

“It changed everything,” she says.

Sadly, Tal is no stranger to tragedy. Five of her family members unexpectedly passed away over the course of two years, mostly due to illness. Tal became practiced in the process of loss.

“It was a huge amount of grief in such a short time,” she recalls. “It made me more mature.”

Using her experience, Tal began a series of cathartic dialogues with Jewish students at the two Hillel sites. As reports of antisemitism grew, along with unspoken tensions on both campuses, she continued to support students and spearheaded two separate vigils.

To date, she says she has not endured a single hostile incident on either campus.

“I have never felt fear,” she says. “And I never felt more proud of being an Israeli Jew.”

For the next year-and-a-half of her shlichah tenure, Tal does not intend to distract herself with creative pursuits. But when she returns to Israel, she expects to reconnect with her filmmaking peers and develop new projects.

She has already written a script – in Hebrew – with autobiographical elements. The Israeli film industry is small, but she is motivated and readily imagines herself directing movies.

“The world is my oyster,” Tal declares.

ROBERT ISENBERG is a Cranston-based freelancer and writes for Jewish Rhode Island.

JAFI, shaliach, emissary