By Charles Bernsen
About 150 members of the Jewish community got together for a party on Thursday, Aug. 11 to honor and bid an emotional farewell to Liron Finkelstein as her two-year tenure as Nashville’s shlicha (Israel emissary) came to an end.
And Finkelstein made it a point to hug just about every one of them.
At her own request, she also was the first to speak at the two-hour gathering at the Gordon Jewish Community Center.
“I want to make sure I can do this without crying,” she explained.
Finkelstein is one of hundreds of young Israelis who travel abroad to serve as shlichim in Jewish communities throughout the world under an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel. It’s a daunting undertaking, she explained, that involves leaving a country and community that is familiar for one that is not, then juggling a demanding schedule that might include teaching Hebrew to 4th graders at Akiva School in the morning, helping prepare teenagers for a Get Connected trip to Israel in the afternoon, and meeting with a committee of adult volunteers planning a communitywide Israel Independence Day celebration in the evening.
But the reward, Finkelstein told those at the gathering, was the opportunity to enjoy “the wonderful life of a Jewish community I didn’t even know existed” and, more important, to experience its love and commitment to her and her homeland.
After two years in Nashville, she said, “I know in my heart now that we in Israel are not alone …. You will always be a big part of me.”
The event was emceed by Abbie Wolf, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Middle Tennessee and Finkelstein’s supervisor, who recalled interviewing Finkelstein during a trip to Israel in early 2014 and knowing immediately that she had found the perfect shlicha for Nashville.
“Your intelligence, kindness, sense of humor – and most of all that smile – have endeared you to us,” said Wolf, who was moved to tears at the prospect of driving Finkelstein to the airport for her return to Israel.
She was not alone. Azita Yazdian and her husband Abe were Finkelstein’s official host family during her stay in Nashville. When it came time for Azita Yazdian to deliver her prepared remarks, she was so overcome with emotion that she had to call on Federation Campaign Director Naomi Sedek to read them.
“Abe and I are very proud to call you our Israeli daughter,” Yazdian wrote. “You are a smart, kind, intelligent and beautiful young lady … You will be missed, but you will be in our hearts forever.”
In response to the presentation of a gift for hosting Finkelstein – a colorful menorah purchased from a shop in Jerusalem – she said, “Liron is my gift.”
In all, almost a dozen people came to the microphone to express their appreciation to Finkelstein and praise her contributions to the community.
Federation Executive Director Mark S. Freedman said she had been “an inspiration to us and opened a new and deeper window into Israel for the Nashville Jewish community.”
Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Congregation Sherith Israel described her as “warm, professional and compassionate” and said her “big tent view of Judaism” had not only made it easy for her to relate to all segments of the Jewish community but also provided a model for the community to emulate.
Julie Greenberg, education director at Congregation Micah, said Finkelstein’s hundreds of visits to Jewish classrooms and playgrounds “had kindled a connection to Israel among our children that will never dim.”
Adi Raz, a Israeli native and leader of NowGen Nashville, the Federation group for young Jewish professionals, became perhaps Finkelstein’s closest friend in Nashville.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do when you leave,” she said, recalling their late night talks over coffee. “You’ve become more than a friend. You’re truly my sister.”
Moises Paz recounted the leadership role Finkelstein took in planning and coordinating the Nashville community’s celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) last May, which drew 500 people to Red Caboose Park in Bellevue.
And Emmie Wolf-Dubin, Abbie Wolf’s 8-year-old daughter, described the special bond that she and Finkelstein developed during long conversations outside her mother’s office after school.
“We would sit and talk and talk and talk,” she said. “Liron made everyone’s day special once, but she made mine special every day.”
The official program ended with a video from Israel featuring a message from Finkelstein’s parents and siblings, which they read first in Hebrew and then in English.
“We can’t wait to see you,” they said to Finkelstein.
And to the Nashville community: “Thanks for taking care of Liron and being her family for the past two years.” •