Get to Know Us – Meet our Shlicha (Israeli Emissary), Or Cohen

The work done by the Jewish Alliance touches lives locally and across the globe. Our new blog series, Get to Know Us, is intended to highlight that work and give you a glimpse into the people behind it…we hope you enjoy learning a bit more about who we are and what we do!

The writer, with members of her patrol boat’s crew.

When I was a kid, I had a lot of fears: snakes, needles, making mistakes speaking English. Those fears are why I connected with the Batman story. Why Batman? Because he chose to be a bat, even though he was afraid of bats. He wanted to deal with his fear, and that’s kind of become the motto for my life, to deal with fear.

Whether you’re afraid or excited, your body has the same symptoms. It’s your brain that explains, “now you’re afraid,” or “now you’re excited.” I find it funny, and so I like things like snowboarding and surfing, because it’s a challenge, it’s exciting. It helps me take care of my fears. The most important, for me, is that I challenge myself.

That’s why I joined the Israeli Navy. I wanted to be part of an elite combat unit, like the U.S. Navy SEALs, but in the IDF, those units are closed to females. I thought about how I loved to swim, and how much I love water, and I joined the Israeli Naval Academy. After the academy I became an officer on a missile ship, and later I was the first female commander of a patrol boat.

Today, I’m shaliach, here in Providence to make connections with Israel. My challenge in the navy was similar, to make connections with my crewmates. In Israel, people in the military get very close, because it’s not like the United States. People have to serve; they don’t join for their own reasons. So, to get people to do what you want them to do, you have to make personal connections. You have to make connections with the sailors, with the soldiers, so it’s the same like with the shaliach.

In my patrol boat, I had lots of kinds of people. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, American, the spectrum of Israeli society. We had to work on our connections, and there were a lot of conflicts, but by the end, I really enjoyed returning to my boat every Sunday. My crew became my family, like my brothers. We’re still in touch, and some of us have even traveled together.

I left the navy because I wanted to work with, influence, and educate people. I wanted to teach, and travel. I was looking for something to connect between education and some challenge, and I found this position. I came to Providence because I heard that it has all kinds of people, and it made me think of my boat – different people, different opinions, but one goal. Now that I’ve been here for a few months, I already feel like I’m making good connections. I feel like part of a family.

I was surprised to come to Providence and see all the people who want to meet me, and see how the shaliach program is important. I think the thing that most surprised me is how fast the kids recognized me in the synagogues and temples. They only saw me once, maybe twice, but they remember me, and they always say hi, and ask how I’m doing, and that’s very humbling.

Like on my boat, the biggest challenge here is to make a connection with everyone. Everyone is different, and making that connection is like a quiz, like Sudoku. You look for where you have some connection, a hobby, or interest. That connection, on one side I share my story and teach, and on the other side I get more back. The benefit I get from the kids, the people that I educate, helps me to grow. I give something, and I get more back.

After I make the connection, the next challenge is to find the way to educate, to find how people connect with my topic. At JCDS [Jewish Community Day School], we have a twinning program with Israel. I want this to succeed, because the children will become friends with kids in Israel, and it symbolizes all the shaliach programs. People love me, and they love every shaliach that comes, but the association remains with me, or the other shaliach. I want the program and its influence to be bigger, with Israel, so the twinning program is a way to get out from that. It’s not only Or, it’s Israel. It’s the kids in Israel, and the kids here have a friend there.

With adults, I try to show a different Israel. With adults, finding the points of connection is a bit more difficult, because you’re looking for a community interest, and it’s bigger. People are really interested in Israeli movies, and books, and food. Especially food, so that’s kind of the base, but I don’t want to just say, “This is hummus, and this is falafel…”

So I want to put a light on other things in Israel – a project, a person…I want to bring something other. There are a lot of problems in Israel, and adults know what the media shows, but I want to show and present all the good things that we have, and we have a lot of good things to present outside.

I have found a lot of differences between Rhode Island and Israel. I noticed it right away, with the traffic, and the lights. And everything here is huge – the coffee that I buy in the morning, the meals…I always have leftovers. And, only in Rhode Island, everything is “used to be.” You don’t talk about what is, but what was. “I live near the wine store; it used to be the pharmacy.” If I say only “wine store,” no one knows where I live!

But most surprising, the main thing, is the connection to the temples. In Israel, most people, if you talk about Judaism, take a step back. When you mention the betknesset (the synagogue), most people say, “That is not part of my life.” But here, the synagogue is the center of the community. In Israel, the center of the community is a civilian place, not a religious one.

But I feel more comfortable here in some ways than in Israel, because in Israel, Jewish life is black and white. If you keep kosher, or observe Shabbat, you’re religious. If you don’t, you’re secular. And here, I was really surprised, and I really connected that you ask questions, and what you connect to, you keep doing. And what you don’t connect, or you don’t think is connected to the Jewish life, you don’t keep it, and it’s up to you. It’s not the society and the community judging you, “Oh, you’re doing this, you’re religious. If you don’t, you’re secular.”

American Jews are more of a spectrum, more grey than black-and-white. If you take Israel as a secular people and compare them to the Reform movement, they’re kind of the same, but in Israel they don’t know a lot about the spectrum, and all the movements, and all the kinds of Jews.

As shaliach, I’ve been thinking how to make my presentations bigger, to connect with more people in the community. I don’t just want to tell my story. I’m working on the once-a-month Israeli Culture Series, and we’re trying to bring Israeli films from the Boston Film Festival. And in March, the big presentation I’m planning to do is around Women’s International Day, and Purim.

I hope to connect to the experience of being here, to know as many people as I can, because I came here to know a lot of different people, a lot of different families. That’s what I want – I don’t want to just meet a few people and then stop. I want to take every opportunity that I have to feel something, to know something. Every event in the temple, every event in every group, just to feel and to connect, and to know how it is to live as a Jew in the U.S. Here, I feel like part of a very big family. I’m very happy to come to work, and to meet the people, and I always walk into the building with a big smile. I feel like I’m at home, and everyone is really interesting.

Or Cohen is the Jewish Alliance’s shlicha (Israeli emissary). She can be reached by email at ocohen@jewishallianceri.org, or by phone at 401.421.4111 ext. 121.
The Israeli Shlichim program is made possible between a partnership with the Jewish Alliance, The Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish Federations of North America.

Get to Know Us – Meet our Shlicha (Israeli Emissary), Or Cohen

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