At age 23, Elihay Skital already has a wide range of interests. He loves to sing. He loves working with kids. He is fluent in Hebrew and English, and he’s learning Spanish. He loves to cook – give him any excuse, and he’ll fry up bimuelos (fritters), with a side of sour cream.
This is one reason Skital has embraced his new role as Rhode Island’s shaliach, or emissary, from Israel: There are so many opportunities to use his dazzling array of skills.
“I feel that at the Jewish Alliance, I bring my ideas, and people listen to me,” Skital said during a recent interview. “People act [like I am] an adult. People act [like I am] someone who actually wants to bring something to the table, and we can do some amazing stuff together.”
Skital grew up in the Israeli seaside city of Ashkelon. His father was an elementary school vice principal before retiring and his mother still works as an accountant for a manufacturer of automotive parts.
Starting in middle school, Skital volunteered to work with children. He was an active member of his local youth council, which was designed to boost both child development and national identity.
“This started my interest in working with kids and teenagers,” Skital recalled.
Growing up in a musical family, Skital was naturally drawn to singing. In ninth grade, he seized the chance to visit New York City with the international teen choir HaZamir. This was Skital’s first visit to the United States. He met scores of teenaged singers from HaZamir chapters across the U.S., which bolstered his interest in the country and the Jewish diaspora.
“I met these Americans that I knew nothing about,” Skital recalled. “And they didn’t know a lot about Israel. I realized how it’s so important to have these connections. It’s so important to build and strengthen this connection. So, I decided to come back again and again, for four years.”
Skital is cheerful and sociable, and it’s easy to imagine him singing bass in a choir or leading art projects for children. But Skital has a serious side; the good humor can quickly vanish from his face, replaced by sharp focus. This ability was an asset in the Israeli military, where he served as a “psychotechnics officer.” Skital interviewed new recruits, helping to determine whether they were suited for combat training.
Following his discharge, he spent six months backpacking through Latin America.
Skital has packed a great deal of life experience into his 23 years. So far, he has stayed in the United States 10 different times, usually serving as a shaliach.
The shlichim program, organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, connects young emissaries with organizations in the United States. Skital is one of between 1,500 and 1,750 shlichim currently working in the U.S., selected from more than 10,000 applicants. Before coming to Rhode Island, his most recent posting was at Camp Havaya, in eastern Pennsylvania, one of many counselor positions that Skital has filled.
After his stint in the Poconos, Skital began his Rhode Island ambassadorship in earnest, in the fall of 2022. He will serve as the state’s shaliach until late 2024.
“I had never been to Rhode Island before,” Skital said with a laugh. “I didn’t know Rhode Island was a state until I came here. But I’m so glad that I came to this community. I feel that I say that all the time to every person that I meet. I feel this community here is just so welcoming, which is so, so important to me.”
Skital has quickly fallen into the breakneck rhythm of his new work. Each day takes him somewhere new: to a Sunday School to cook traditional dishes, to a Hillel to talk about Israeli life and culture, to a synagogue to sing. In December, he helped Israeli designer Liraz Cohen produce a fashion show at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence. Come June, Skital will become a leading mentor at Camp JORI, in Wakefield.
“I feel like every day is very, very different,” he said. “I don’t know what my days are, the day before. My schedule has never been this busy. I love that, because I’m working on stuff that I really like to do.”
Skital is also a fountain of original ideas. One of his specialties is “camp dancing,” a kind of aerobics session set to Israeli pop music. What began as a one-off here and there has become a pilot class at the Dwares JCC fitness center, where students bob, kick and punch to a driving Mediterranean beat.
Skital also teaches advanced Hebrew to students who want to brush up on their language skills. And after so many culinary demonstrations, Skital hopes to put together an actual cooking class for the community.
“Every place where I go,” Skital said, “I feel that people want to come, people want to learn, people want to meet with me and ask me questions about Israel, ask me questions about my family, and my history and my heritage. All of that is important to me, because that is what I came for.”
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.