The following speech was delivered by Shai Bibas, our community shaliach, at Kol Nidre Services at Synagogue Emanuel on September 18th, 2018:
Shanah tovah. My name is Shai Bibas. I’m 26 years old and I moved here 3 weeks ago from Israel to work on behalf of the Charleston Jewish Federation. I’ll be with you for the next two years to strengthen our community’s connection to Israel and Jewish people around the world. I’ll be engaging our synagogues, college students, local schools, young families and professionals in dialogue about the Israel that I know, love, and live in.
So, what is my Israel story?
I was born in a city called Rishon Letzion, just 15 minutes south of Tel Aviv, where I lived until I turned 15. I then moved to a small town called Lapid, which is right in between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I lived with my wonderful parents and two siblings .
The decision to come to Charleston wasn’t that easy. I graduated from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with a double major in Chemistry and Biology. I’ve worked for Teva Pharmaceuticals, developing drugs for the US market. I also worked in a lab where I developed a potential drug to cure lung cancer. I was on the way to becoming a chemist.
But something was missing. In the three consecutive summers between completing my service at the IDF, where I served in the Navy and National Intelligence, until the first year of university, I worked at Jewish summer camps across North America. I taught campers about Israel and tried to give them the right information so they could understand the basics about my country’s challenges. After those three summers, I felt so grateful for that opportunity, but I was left wishing I could spend more time on this important work. In two months, you can’t make a real change. I fell in love with working with Jewish communities abroad, promoting Israel in a real, nonpolitical way to whomever I met.
So after three years of university, I was standing at a crossroads – what should I do? Keep being a chemist, or do what I always loved doing – working with communities abroad? I decided to take a chance to start a new career, as an Israel emissary here in Charleston.
The struggles that I and the other 198 Israel emissaries around the world are facing are numerous. Discussing Israel and her policies has become something that divides communities. Something that used to unify us as Jewish people is now having the opposite effect.
But I’m truly confident that this is the time to make a change and this is why I’m here. We, both Israelis and Jewish Americans who live in Israel and abroad, have to understand that it is OK to question some of our government’s policies, but to always remember that supporting the right of Israel to exist is separate and most crucial. And now, more than ever, your support is needed.
Here, in the United States, I’ve been exposed to so many philosophies of Jewish life. Each has its own beliefs, and that’s what makes us, the Jews, so unique. But we should never forget that, after all, we are all Jews, who share similar values, and should work together as a whole in order to create a strong community that stands behind our homeland and the right of its existence no matter what.
Israel relies on you, the communities in the United States, and sees you as a major part of our success throughout our history.
A synagogue is such a wonderful way to explain to people what Israel is like – an incredibly diverse group of individuals. People in every possible age bracket, every possible family situation, and everything in between. Some can read, write and speak Hebrew fluently, and others have yet to learn. Some of us are Jews whose lives revolve around our affinity for Judaism, while others feel challenged to relate to Jewish teachings, and in fact, may be asking “Why am I here today?” We seek many different things from our community. Some of us go to to every Jewish event in town, seeking to understand our Jewish heritage and identity, to increase our education, observance and spirituality. Others of us come to synagogue three times a year. That pretty much sums it up. A synagogue is, for me, a small Israel. Both of them are trying to have a big enough tent for everyone. Both want you all to feel welcome and fulfilled.
The challenges facing our homeland are not easy. Challenges that continually cast doubt on Israel’s legitimacy- the right of the Jewish people to have a Jewish state.
And we, as a community, should stand behind our homeland. It doesn’t matter what your political view is. It’s not a question of personal opinion. Jews both in Israel and all over the world should do whatever possible in order to support Israel.
The Days of Awe are the time in which we reflect on the past year and renew our spiritual attachment but we also renew our commitments to ourselves, our families, our friends and our community.
These “Days of Awe” from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a gift to us – a chance to step back and look at our lives, a chance to examine the ways that we have gone on autopilot, and forgotten that we have choices we make everyday. We have a choice about how we want to act, how we want to think, and how we want to live our lives. May we all choose well.
And that’s exactly why Yom Kippur is my favorite jewish holiday- we get a chance to dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. We are commanded to turn to those whom we have wronged first, acknowledging our sins and the pain we might have caused. At the same time, we must be willing to forgive and to let go of certain offenses and the feelings of resentment they provoked in us. And we do all this, without distractions of a normal day- technology,email, phones, even food and drink
The best explanation of Yom Kippur I ever heard came 3 years ago, when I was a college student. Rabbi Yisroel Deren at Chabad of Amherst explained things this way:
“The soul is a garment. This world is a muddy road. The soul gets spattered with mud. Yom Kippur is G-d‘s dry cleaning service for the garment that is your soul. In by 8 a.m., out and and clean by 7 p.m. One Day Service!“
Works for me.
Sometimes when I’m fasting, the only thing I can think about is the fast Itself.
But when I remember that I’m visiting G-d’s dry cleaners, and I’ve got the whole day to focus on that and nothing but that, the day takes on real meaning and I get to connect with the deepest part of my consciousness.
Lastly, I would like to share with you a story about myself. Five years ago, when I was at the Israeli Navy, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I thought that my life was ruined, and I imagined spending every single day of my life at home, miserable. At some point that year, instead of being sad and finding excuses why I couldn’t do things, I decided to make my own choices, to stop being on autopilot, and to do whatever I can to achieve my dreams that I, as a young child, already had. So I got accepted to the best school of science in the country, I graduated with honors, I got accepted to work in the place I dreamed of as a child. And the last dream came true three months ago, when I ran my first marathon in Prague, 26.2 miles of pure happiness, with the flags of the state of Israel and the Israeli Epilepsy Association on my back. I showed everyone that anything is possible. All we have to do is to turn off our autopilot and pursue the things that will make us feel fulfilled. Do whatever you can in order to make this year your best one yet. Achieve your dreams, work hard, believe, and above all – love.
So I’m here for you. I want to hear your voice and listen to your ideas. Or just sit with a cup of coffee and talk about Israel or about any other topic. And even more importantly, I’m here to learn from you, about your community, about your people, and about your personal stories.
On behalf of my wonderful parents David and Daniella, and my siblings Omer and Eran, may the new year be a year of a greater peace and security in Israel, throughout the Middle East, and the world over.
And for all of us – for our families, for the state of Israel, and for Jewish people everywhere, a very happy, healthy and sweet New Year.
Shai Bibas is CJF’s first Community Shaliach (emissary)! Through this Jewish Agency Program, Shai is in Charleston for two years to strengthen our community's connection to Israel. He will collaborate with our partner synagogues and agencies, within Federation's initiatives (YAD, PJ Library) and the local schools. Shai has extensive experience in this field, having worked on the counselor and supervisory level at several Jewish overnight camps in North America and Israel with ages 8-16. Shai also tutors students from grades 6th-12 in Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Mathematics. Graduating from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with degrees in Chemistry and Biology, Shai most recently worked at Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, doing the R&D of generic drugs. He served in the Israeli Naval Academy and in an exclusive unit in the Intelligence Corps. Shai’s two favorite past-times are reading about scientists and windsurfing. He has experience with all Jewish denominations and grew up as part of the Conservative movement (Masorti) in Israel.
You can contact Shai at ShaiB@jewishcharleston.org