By KATHY CARLSON
A great first interview brought Sharon Ben Ami to the Nashville Jewish Federation, where she is the community’s fifth shlicha, or Israel emissary.
“Whenever there is an opening for a shlicha, they tell you and you interview for the position,” she recalled. “The first one I got was Nashville and it just clicked.
“…The job in Nashville seemed very dynamic, working with all age groups,” she said. Other communities wanted their shlicha to focus on specific age groups, but the Nashville position involved working with children, teens, young adults and seniors, and the variety appealed to Ben Ami.
Shlichot come to Nashville and other communities throughout the United States and around the world through a program with the Jewish Agency for Israel. They help their local communities learn about Israel and help build a bridge between Israel and each Jewish community. Ben Ami will work with synagogues, religious schools and other community organizations.
Ben Ami grew up in Jerusalem and attended The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. She decided to become a shlicha when, as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, she accompanied American and British college students on Birthright Israel trips.
“When I was with the students, they debated a lot of Jewish and Israeli issues and conflicts, and I saw the impact I could have on other Jewish communities around the world,” she said. “Since then, it became one of my goals to become a shlicha, and today, with the rising anti-Semitism around the world that goes hand-in-hand with Israel’s de-legitimacy, it couldn’t seem like a better time.”
This is her first time in the United States and she said she doesn’t know anyone who has been to Nashville. She’s not a singer but loves music, so Nashville’s focus on music was a draw.
Ben Ami’s grandparents came to Israel from Morocco and the Kurdish part of Iraq, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews respectively. Her parents were the younger children in their families and, unlike their siblings, were born in Israel.
Because their families weren’t Ashkenazi Jews, they were considered underprivileged when they arrived in Israel, Ben Ami said. As non-Ashkenazis, her parents had to fight for their rights in Israel, she said,
In the United States people would probably consider her white, she said, but in Israel she’s “not from that group,” and her last name isn’t Ashkenazi.
These days, not being Ashkenazi is not the big deal that was 50 years ago and the social situation in Israel is becoming more fluid and multicultural, but you can still find discrimination and gaps that exists for instance in the academy where proportionally fewer Mizrahi Jews are in professions or are college educated compared with Ashkenazis so being Ashkenazi “still stings. I know what discrimination feels like,” she said.
She’s eager to hear the personal stories of people in Nashville’s Jewish community. Given her background, Ben Ami is interested in ‘Tikkun olam’, working to bond the Jewish community and strengthen its relations with Israel. She also wants to see as much as she can of the United States and talk to people about Israeli music and arts. Her mother and sister are “body trainers,” and she is interested in healthy living, yoga, body and soul and its connection to Judaism.
Ben Ami also wants to share some Mizrahi traditions, food and music. “It’s just a little part of who I am.” •