By Carl Zebrowski
Gavriel Siman-Tov was walking down the hall in the Jewish Community Center, covered in paints from a JCC summer camp activity.
It was a few weeks before his time as shaliach (Israeli emissary) to the Lehigh Valley would come to an end. JCC summer camp — one of his favorite things here — was ending soon too.
He didn’t seem to mind his colorful appearance, despite that even his previously new-looking white sneakers now wore a motley coat of stray paint. “I love camp,” the self-described sneaker addict said without a hint of sarcasm.
He accepted the situation with a shrug. You could picture him doing the same in response to his challenging start as shaliach back in September 2020. “They picked me up at the airport,” he said, “and I went straight into quarantine.”
Jeri Zimmerman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, soon arrived at Siman-Tov’s apartment with her husband, Len, carrying grocery bags and wearing masks. It was an unusual welcome to what would be Siman-Tov’s home for two years, but it wasn’t lost on him that the people here went out of their way for him right from the beginning.
“The community is incredible,” he said. “Even when they were scared during COVID, they still took care of me, even when we couldn’t get together.”
Siman-Tov came here from Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, to teach the community here about Israel. On a previous trip to the United States, he had met shlichim (shaliach plural) and thought that someday he might like to do what they were doing.
He brought with him considerably more experience than his 23 years could seem to have accommodated. He had worked as camp counselor in a few different places, including Malibu, California. He had participated in an international camp in Russia and an exchange program in Germany.
He also served in the Israel Defense Force, which he describes as a sort of fully functioning society of its own. Besides combat troops, there are cooks and secretaries and shopkeepers and everyone else required to keep things running. His role was sound engineer for the air force ensemble.
It shouldn’t have surprised anyone here that he was able to do — or figure out how to do — just about anything asked of him. He taught classes, fixed computers, shot photos, set up equipment for events, ran Zoom presentations, wrote columns for Hakol, taught archery at JCC camp, threw a ceremonial “first pitch” for Jewish Heritage Night at the Iron Pigs…
For all that, he came here above all to present the Jewish homeland as he has known and experienced it. “The goal is to make a personal connection with a lot of people and to get them to know Israel,” he said. “When someone gets to know you, they get to know Israel. Israel is very different from what people see on TV.”
He took his personal version of Israel to classes at the Jewish Day School, synagogue members, kids at the JCC school and camp, residents with intellectual disabilities at the Tivah House and others.
The learning experience worked in the other direction too. “I liked experiencing American things like baseball games,” he said. “We don’t have that in Israel. I went to concerts. My first was Billie Eilish.”
Then there were American holidays. You see Christmas trees and decorations in Israel, he said, but nothing that compares. “You can find a bar doing a Halloween theme in Israel, but here it’s everywhere. It’s craziness.”
Now that his stint as shaliach has ended, he was spending some time traveling before he returns to Israel, including trips to Toronto and maybe Las Vegas. “I love driving,” he said, and the United States offers endless opportunities for it. “It’s like it’s built for road trips. It’s just you and the road.”
Fittingly, his favorite book is Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” about leaving behind the known and the safe to explore the unknown and the scary. “And will you succeed?” begins the book’s conclusion. “Yes! You will, indeed!”