Former Shlichim reunite with Colorado friends

May 23, 2024 | Article, Event, Newsletter

For many, the high point of the Am Yisrael Chai celebration on May 5 was the opportunity to see four of JEWISHcolorado’s former Shlichim, all visiting from Israel. They brought with them news of life in Israel since October 7, and they returned feeling a collective hug from the JEWISHcolorado community. Their individual stories are a testament to their personal achievements, resilience during the war, and the impact of the ongoing Shlichim program in Colorado.

Shaul Amir

“Thirty-five years ago! Can you believe it? Amazing!”

Shaul Amir is remembering his first stint at JEWISHcolorado, starting as a Shaliach in 1989. Serving as an Israeli emissary was in his DNA—his father had been a Shaliach in Los Angeles when Amir was a senior in high school—and from his father, he learned the importance of connecting communities around the world to Israel.

After his IDF service and a degree in social work, he served as a Shaliach in England from 1974-1976. When he returned to Israel, he worked with olim from England, Australia, and New Zealand for 13 years.

And then, he says with a smile, “The virus hit me again—the urge for a change, to do something useful.”

“I am Zionistic deep in my heart,” he adds. “I felt like I could do a lot of good things outside Israel.”

When Amir first came to Denver, much of his work was with individuals making Aliyah, some of whom wanted to serve in the IDF.

“I was often torn in those discussions,” he says. “I would cry with the parents who did not want their children to go, but I also knew there was no way to stop them from going.”

During those years, Amir was also the spokesperson for what was then the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado during the first Gulf War, serving as the face of the Colorado Jewish community as missiles flew over his homeland.

Shaul Amir speaks at Am Yisrael Chai

When he returned to Israel in 1992, he started fundraising, but by 2003 the Federation recruited him to return to Denver where he stayed for the next four-and-a-half years as the Director of the Israel and Overseas Office. He worked to build JEWISHcolorado’s partnership with Ramat HaNegev and to ensure that the Shlichim program would continue uninterrupted into the future.

“And it has gone on until today!” he says. “Now you have Nelly Ben Tal the current Shlicha, and what could be better than that!

“I believe the role of the Shlichim is to strengthen the community by strengthening the ties between the community and Israel, and that can only be done by Israeli Shlichim who come, know their time is limited, work 24-7, and then return to Israel.”

The invitation to come to Colorado for Am Yisrael Chai was a surprise for which he is very grateful.

“I have never been so overwhelmed as I was on this trip,” he says. “Denver is home away from home. I have some sort of fusion with the people here that I have never experienced elsewhere. I feel like I left a part of myself in Denver which lives on in the people here, and I am taking those people back with me to Israel.”

Raz Arbel

When the invitation to come to Colorado arrived, Raz Arbel was torn. On the one hand, it had been many years since he had seen his friends in Colorado. On the other hand, it did not seem like a good time to leave Israel because one of his three children is a pilot in the Israeli Air Force and his older two children have been called up to serve in the reserves.

“My wife convinced me to go,” Arbel says. “She said to me, ‘It’s important that we tell the Jewish community what is going on here.’”

Arbel has been telling the global Jewish community about Israel for more than two decades. He was running the partnership and tourism department in Ramat HaNegev in 2001 when he came to Colorado through the Federation for 10 days with a search and rescue team, exchanging information and training with Colorado experts in search and rescue.

When he returned to Israel, he worked on building the partnership between Ramat HaNegev and Colorado in every way possible, arranging Federation mission trips, public officials’ trips, and teen birthright journeys. He worked with Shaul Amir to formalize the Shlichut program through the Jewish Agency. He also found ways to return to Colorado whenever he could, often accompanying the mayor of Ramat HaNegev.

“I love the mountains in Colorado,” he says. “I love to bike, hike, ride horses, and the people here are active and outdoor, just like the people in Ramat HaNegev.”

When he joined JEWISHcolorado as a Shaliach in 2007, he did everything he could to strengthen and reinforce the partnership with Ramat HaNegev. If mission trips went to Israel, he insisted they visit Ramat HaNegev. He organized a display of art from Ramat HaNegev in Denver. Using every angle he could, he focused on the area in Israel championed by David Ben-Gurion, with the theory that it’s one thing to support the concept of Israel in general and quite another to focus on one region.

Raz Arbel speaks at Am Yisrael Chai

“If people care about people, they will be more connected,” he says. “Anything you can do to improve personal connections in both directions will build a bridge between countries.”

Today, Arbel continues to build bridges throughout the Negev with his own tourism business. He was grateful for the opportunity to return to Colorado and fulfill his wife’s directive to tell people “What is going on here.” The top three questions he received were direct and honest. “Do we need to invade Rafah?” “Are there still living hostages?” “How do you think this will end?”

“I tried to explain everything as best I could,” he says. “One thing I know. Whatever the outcome of this war, there will be consequences for global Jewish life.”

His experience at Am Yisrael Chai was a feeling of love for Israel so overwhelming that he wished he could take it back with him on the plane. Instead, he recommended that people send their love in small pieces—text messages or emails—still fulfilling his mission as an Israeli emissary.

“Instead of waiting for people to come to Israel, the Shlichim program is a way to bring Israel to a lot of people,” he says. “The Shlichim are the face of Israel.”

Osnat Fox

“The decision to travel from Israel to Denver for Am Yisrael Chai was very easy,” Osnat Fox says.

But leaving was hard.

Her husband has been serving in the reserves in Israel, and as the day to board the plane drew near, she became more anxious. But once she arrived, she knew she had made the right decision.

“It’s so impressive to see the work being done by JEWISHcolorado,” she says. “We are living through the most challenging times we have ever had as a community, and I see strength and pain. I hope that the relationships in place sustain the community as it confronts whatever is in the future.”

Fox says she has been “working in education all my life.” She was teaching high school when she and her husband decided they wanted to have an international adventure. For Fox, using her experience as an educator outside Israel for a few years and returning to Israel with new ideas was an “incredible opportunity.”

In the small world that is Ramat HaNegev, she heard about the Jewish Agency Shlichim program when her husband went out with a friend for a beer. Her interview for the position was with the legendary Shmuel “Shmulik” Rifman, mayor of Ramat HaNegev.

“He said to me, ‘I think they have already chosen someone, but let’s have a chat,’” Fox recalls. “Ninety minutes later, he calls a friend at the Jewish Agency and says, ‘I have this woman you have to see.’”

Osnat Fox speaks at Am Yisrael Chai

Fox arrived in Denver in 2015 during a time of deep division, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a controversial speech to Congress, criticizing the Obama administration’s pursuit of an international accord that would curb Iran’s nuclear program.

“People were fighting, not even willing to sit in the same room,” Fox recalls. “Much of my focus from day one was working with community leaders to have conversations and enlarge the tent of Jewish discussion. It was a job I could never do by myself. It was all about community.”

Fox says she happened to be “in the right place at the right time.”

“We found that having an Israeli in the room during these hard discussions where tough things were said led people to be honest,” she says. “If you hold on to radical honesty, relationship building, and community building then you have the interwoven fabric to move forward.”

Since returning to Israel, Fox has worked for the Jewish Agency, connecting Israelis with the global Jewish community, ensuring Israel stays pluralistic and accepting of diverse Jewish life, and creating cutting-edge educational programming for Israeli schools.

In recent months, she has met with groups traveling to Israel from Colorado and talked to them about life since October 7.

“It was like I had family visiting—like they were coming to check up on me,” she says. “I spoke from the heart about what our family is going through. It feels like your whole life has been turned upside down, your sense of security shattered, but you keep on walking forward.”

Itai Divinsky

Itai Divinisky returned to Israel after four years as JEWISHcolorado Shaliach last June. He could never have predicted that within a matter of months, he would be called up to return to military duties in the reserve. He was hesitant to leave his family to come to Colorado for Am Yisrael Chai, but his 10-year-old daughter Ella persuaded him to return—and bring her with him.

“She misses her friends and her life here,” Divinsky says. “Once we saw how much it meant to her, it was clear to me that we were coming regardless of my hesitation.”

Once Divinsky arrived, he knew he had made the right decision, and he is grateful to JEWISHcolorado for bringing him here.

“Being with everyone since we arrived and at Am Yisrael Chai, I was so happy that we came,” Divinsky says. “It means a lot to this community and our friends here and it means a lot for me personally to be with them during this difficult time.”

Since returning to Israel last summer, Divinsky has served as the Director of Resource Development and Partnerships for Nitzana, an educational community in the western Negev that caters to different demographics. Nitzana includes programs for Bedouin boys, for olim from the Soviet Union, for young people from underserved communities preparing to go into the army, and for students from all over Israel coming to the Negev on short-term study programs. The goal is to invest in individuals to help them reach their potential and to make connections between different groups—whether they are Bedouin teens, Jewish children, or olim.

At Nitzana, we believe the future of a strong, stable Israel includes everyone,” Divinsky says. “We cannot ignore a part of the population and think it’s okay.”

JEWISHcolorado has always provided significant funding for Nitzana, but since October 7 has sent additional support because the community has taken in refugees from the Gaza Envelope.

Itai Divinsky speaks at Am Yisrael Chai

“When things are bad and difficult, you are reminded why these partnerships exist and why they have been in place all along,” Divinsky says. “We have to stay connected. We cannot afford to be separated.”

Ask Divinsky about life in Israel these days, and he will tell you that on the surface things seem back to normal—but beneath the surface, they are far from normal. Until the hostages return, he says, healing cannot start.

But he also puts the turmoil and tragedy of today in perspective, reminding listeners that Israel was founded by pioneers. Now, he says, it is this generation’s turn to rely on its pioneering spirit.

“I have no idea how this will end,” he says. “I’m not sure our leaders know, but we keep going and fighting and living and celebrating. If, during the dark days of the Holocaust, Jews could believe in the future, we—who have food, hot water, armed police and military protecting us—we certainly can believe in the future.”