A conference of Israeli immigrant community leaders in North America

For three days in February, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) hosted a conference for Israeli immigrants from North America to meet in Miami and talk about how to further their leadership efforts and outreach to and for Israeli immigrants in Canada and the United States. Two volunteers, Inbal Marcovitch and Yulia Elgin attended on behalf of the Canadian Israeli community of Ottawa. Both are leaders in our community having started initiatives that have made a huge difference to separate micro-communities. 

Marcovitch was the founder of HaKibbutz, a program for children and youth growing up in Hebrew-speaking homes and funded through a Jewish Federation of Ottawa Jewish Journeys grant.  Meeting on Sundays at the Soloway JCC, it is an immersive Hebrew experience, bringing Israeli culture and values to kids growing up in Canada. 

Elgin is originally from Azerbaijan and speaks Russian as her first language. Her family made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) when she was a child, so she is also Israeli and a Hebrew speaker. Her work has focused on connecting the Russian-speaking Jewish community, with support from Federation microgrants. She is also the Director of Development and a teacher at the Ottawa Jewish Community School and a facilitator at HaKibbutz.

“Over the weekend of February 23-24, the Department of Irgoon and Israelis Abroad at The World Zionist Organization held a conference in Miami, Florida, for leaders of Israeli immigrant communities in North America, where dozens of leaders from across the United States and Canada gathered for a joint and special meeting, dedicated to the special role of Israeli leaders and communities after the tragedy of the October 2023 events.

The conference participants engaged in a number of workshops led by the Head of the Department, Gusti Yehoshua-Breverman, together with the Executive Director of the Department Yaniv Nachmias, the Head of the North America Desk Lior Sagi, and the North American Program Manager Yahav Barnea, and under the professional and dedicated guidance of the entrepreneur and senior strategic consultant Gilad Babchuk. Participants learned about self-leadership in a time of crisis, with a focus on strengths, peer learning, developing meaningful work plans for their communities, connecting with the Jewish community and the next generation. A highlight was the special Israeli Kabbalat Shabbat together with Cantor Galit Dadon-Cohen.”

--from the WZO Facebook page  

The E-Bulletin was thrilled to speak to these two leaders following their return.

EB: What did it mean to you to be a part of this delegation?

IM: The World Zionist Organization has been working on strengthening the connection between Israeli Canadians and Israeli American Jewish people. Being a Jew living outside of Israel is a new experience for many Israeli immigrants. Belonging to a very small minority in society, is not something that many Israelis, in my generation, had experienced growing up.  For immigrants’ well-being and mental health, a sense of belonging to our homeland is as important as a sense of belonging to our current home, Canada. This is something that is recognized in Canada’s multiculturalism policy. 

For me, the founding of HaKibbutz was about filling that gap. There was nothing else like it in Ottawa, a space to cultivate a sense of belonging to both Canada and Israel, while supporting Israeli immigrants’ integration into Canadian society. The community WZO created is valuable, in that it provides a space where Israeli immigrants can be themselves, meet with other community leaders, exchange ideas, and be mentored on our local projects. I came home with concrete tools to make HaKibbutz a stronger program. I was able to network with leaders running similar programs in their cities and to learn how to help HaKibbutz grow.

YE: It was amazing to be acknowledged for my work here in Ottawa. It has been a dream of mine to bring the Russian-speaking Jewish community (many of whom are also Israeli) together and now I am seeing this become a reality. However, I knew I needed the support of other Israelis with a similar background. There are comparable organizations in Toronto and British Columbia. They have the explicit mission to lead their Russian-speaking Jewish communities. It would be amazing to see this level of programming and affiliation replicated in Ottawa. I gleaned many community building tools to help me take this mission to the next level. 

EB: What takeaways did you have that you can implement in Ottawa?

IM: The most important takeaway for me was the use of positive psychology and strength-based leadership to grow a community. This approach aligns well with my previous education and experience in peacebuilding, where creating personal and meaningful relationships can create spaces for collaboration. The Canadian Israeli community in Ottawa is a caring community; it is rich with talent, expertise, and knowledge. 

In addition, there were roundtable discussions, including one on addressing the rising antisemitism. This is an area where Israeli immigrants don’t have much experience and so we explored strategies to combat it.  One key tool is creating strong resilient communities. 

Another tool is education. How to bring Israeli culture to Israelis living in the diaspora, but also how to infuse it in our day schools, supplementary schools, and extracurricular programs.  

YE: It was an honour to represent Ottawa at the conference. I was reminded of the joy that we need to bring forward everyday. After Oct. 7, things stood still. I was on a plane flying to Israel when the attack happened. It was the scariest moment of my life.

Now I see that we need to live and thrive to make a difference in the world. I am Jewish and I am proud to be Jewish. Being Jewish is who we are, and we need to celebrate that everyday. In addition to the benefit of the networking, the learning, and the brainstorming, my biggest takeaway was to be proud of who I am and, to stand tall, and to continue to advocate for my identity.

EB: Will there be other conferences of this nature?

IM: The plan is to have one conference a year. Yulia and I were invited by the WZO to participate due to our efforts in building and strengthening Ottawa’s Jewish community. We were also invited to join a monthly meeting to continue to build capacity and share knowledge. You need to be a community leader and an Israeli living in the U.S. or Canada to attend. As an aside, I haven’t been in a fully Israeli environment in quite some time. It was wonderful to speak Hebrew 24 hours a day, to learn like an Israeli, discuss and debate like an Israeli, and really feel connected to my home country. 

I think what's special about this opportunity for me, as a Canadian Israeli, was the ability to bring both Israeli and Canadian values to the conversation. I think it's something that we as Canadians can and should do. This is embedded in the values of HaKibbutz as well. It is not a solely Israeli program nor solely a Canadian program. It is a space where children and youth can explore their various identities as immigrants and be themselves.  Canada is a multicultural country and requires more investment in developing the multiple identities of children and youth, so they feel like they belong. Being able to spend a few days learning how to build inclusive, caring, and resilient communities was inspiring. I hope I can pass that knowledge along through HaKibbutz.

To learn more about WZO, visit here: https://www.wzo.org.il/en 

To learn more about Hakibbutz, visit here: https://www.hakibbutz.ca/ 

If you are a Russian speaker, wishing to connect to others in the community, please contact Yulia Elgin at: ottawarsj@gmail.com