For Maia Morag, the job of being a shlicha (emissary) began long before she moved from Israel to Cincinnati.
Following several years as a pluralistic educator in Israel, the Jerusalem native has spent the past three years serving the Midwest’s oldest Jewish community. She approaches this role with a combination of open-mindedness, commitment to Jewish pluralism, and belief in strengthening communal ties by helping diverse individuals get to know each other.
And while some might shy away from discussing the full breadth of issues facing today’s Israeli society, Maia is a firm believer in giving Jews around the world a realistic view of the Jewish State.
“That’s the mission of our generation. This is what we have to do, because Israel is a real place with real issues,” she says. “It sounds like a cliché, but I think the community needs that confidence that comes from a shaliach who comes from Israel, to allow them to explore that [complexity].”
This approach to shlichut is both professional and personal for Maia, and she has found it to be particularly well suited for a Midwestern community with a deep history of pluralism and commitment to Israel.
“Maia has made our community more focused on those issues that are complex, challenging, and perhaps not always revealing the most perfect elements of Israel,” notes Barbara Miller, Director of Community Building at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and Maia’s direct supervisor. “She has encouraged honest dialogue in a very bipartisan world. Such topics have included what a shared Jewish society looks like in Israel, the issues Jews face in Israel when it comes to freedom of marriage, how Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews can work together, and several other topics.”
Shep Englander, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, points out that Maia’s insight into the local Jewish community is a key factor in her effectiveness as an educator. “Maia has used her remarkably deep understanding of our community’s specific culture and concerns to design fresh, eye-opening approaches to Israel education,” he says. “She is able to frame very current, relevant, and even provocative topics while remaining sensitive and inclusive. She is exactly the Israel educator we need to keep our community connected to Israel in these complex and polarizing times.”
Giving Cincinnati a 360-Degree View of Israel
When she arrived in Cincinnati, Maia found a community that already had strong ties to Israel – bonds that she has spent the past three years strengthening. Joining four other shlichim serving the local Jewish community, she discovered that a partnership with Netanya was already giving Cincinnatians real insight into Israeli society.
Since then, Maia has taken a central role in directing that partnership, working together with professional and lay leaders in Israel and Cincinnati.
“We have a very established partnership with Netanya, and we have amazing projects that connect people,” Maia explains. “I always joke that Cincinnatians actually think that Netanya is the capital of Israel – because for us, Israel is Netanya in many ways.”
That partnership is driven by a combination of short-term delegations and ongoing projects in which members of both communities get to know each other, understand each other, and build connections, explains Partnership Director Avi Kagan of The Jewish Agency for Israel. He adds that Maia plays a key role in bridging gaps between groups from Netanya and Cincinnati – a natural role for her, given the way she has come to feel at home in both communities.
“I think Maia specifically brought a very unique angle to the partnership, [including] her background in Jewish philosophy and Jewish education,” Avi notes. “Maia has a global way of looking at things. On the one hand, she focuses on the details – but she can show the whole picture at the same time, which is something that’s very important in this type of work.”
For Maia, this partnership is proof of the power of personal connections as a tool for understanding Israel.
“For many people [from Cincinnati] who don’t have family in Israel, this is their Israel,” she says. “The connection to the land and the history is very powerful, but in the end, it’s the people-to-people connection [that is most powerful]. And I think the partnership gives us an amazing platform to build that.”
Maia also quickly discovered that the Cincinnati Federation had already begun a series of events called Israelity, initiated by former shaliach Yair Cohen to show some of the complexity of life in Israel. Not surprisingly, since then she has taken a central role in Israelity. Most notably, she organized a local concert by Achinoam Nini (Noa) and Mira Awad, a left-leaning duo who had made waves as Israel’s representatives at the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.
Discovering the Midwest
While Maia and her home away from home are clearly well suited for each other, she admits that she knew little about Cincinnati before she began researching the possibility of serving the local community as a shlicha.
“I had to look it up,” she recalls with a laugh, explaining that before her shlichut her familiarity with American geography was mostly focused on the coasts.
After doing research into Cincinnati’s Jewish community and its leadership, Maia was so impressed that she quickly decided to make the leap.
At first, she was surprised to discover how deeply the city’s Jewish community feels connected to Israel.
“I was shocked to discover how much money was given by the annual campaign every year to Israel, how connected they are, how they feel that Israel is essential for them, how they care so much,” she remembers, adding that last summer over 500 Cincinnatians from nine congregations participated in an organized mission to Israel.
She also points out what a strong, collaborative relationship the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati has with The Jewish Agency for Israel – noting that Cincinnati was one of the first cities in the U.S. to host a shaliach from Israel and that the CEO of the local Federation, Shep Englander, is a new member of The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.
For Maia, an emphasis on the complexity and variety of Jewish and Israeli life is nothing new. Growing up in an Argentinian-Israeli family in Jerusalem, she was exposed to diverse conceptions of Judaism from a young age.
“I grew up with an Argentinian mom who came from a Conservative shul in Argentina, a very strong Jewish community in Buenos Aires,” she recalls. “So I always had a different house. I grew up in a secular environment with secular friends, and my mom decided to send me to the first TALI [pluralistic religious] school, which was the only TALI school that existed at that time in Israel.”
More recently, Maia – who holds an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute – spent seven years as an educator at BINA, an organization that gives secular Israelis opportunities to explore classical Jewish texts in a pluralistic way.
“I was the head of the educational department at BINA for seven years, and I created educational programs for public schools and teachers, offering [students] a possibility to explore their Jewish identities,” she explains. “I came from a background of Jewish pluralism, and that was where I grew up professionally.”
In fact, she says, that background is what eventually led her to Cincinnati.
“It was always obvious that the next step after getting to know Israeli society and Jewish pluralism in Israel and its challenges was to spread my wings and go see what’s on the other side,” she states. “That’s what brought me to try out and go through the screening process to become a shlicha.”
A Home Away from Home
Today, after three years in Cincinnati, this is not only a community that Maia serves, but also a place that has impacted her just as she has impacted it.
And as her family has put down roots here, this community has welcomed them with open arms. The four of them moved together to Ohio – Maia, her husband, Amit, and their two children, Rey and Gili – and they have all shared the journey together. And just a few weeks ago, they celebrated the birth of their third child, Ella. But while only Ella will call this her birthplace, it is clear that all five of them will always have a home in Cincinnati.
“I feel very lucky. I think there’s a great match between this community and what I can bring. And I get a lot of support. I have a great supervisor who never says ‘no’ to an idea I’ve had, and who allows me to fly high and far and try things out,” she says.
And the feeling is mutual.
“She will be the first community shlicha to work at the [Cincinnati] Jewish Federation for four consecutive years. We have requested she continue her service because of her tremendous ability to educate us about Israel,” says her supervisor, Barbara. “Maia brings all the qualities that make for a good professional. She listens, she engages, she works hard, and through the brilliant and creative discussions she facilitates with others, she encourages us Cincinnatians to think about our personal relationships with Israel.”