Although she never set foot in Maryland prior to one month ago, Ella Haetzni has quickly found the state to be a home away from home.
The Jerusalem native ventured nearly 6,000 miles to begin her two-year stint as a shlicha at the Jewish Federation of Howard County. Afterward, she plans to pursue a degree at an Israel-based university.
“I believe that if I can help — even if it’s just a little bit — to strengthen the connection between Israel and Jews living in the states, then I can make an impact in this community,” Haetzni said. “I’m excited to meet people, build relationships and learn what it means to be an American Jew.”
The now Columbia resident served as an officer in the Education Corps of the Israel Defense Forces before she became a counselor for a pre-army training program. Haetzni said her time as a counselor, where she worked with Israeli and Diaspora Jews, encouraged her to begin the next chapter of her life at the Federation.
Before leaving her beloved home, Haetzni’s adventurous spirit led her to hike the 683-mile Israel National Trail, snaking from the lush hills of northern Israel to the arid terrain of southern Israel. The 24-year-old was roughly 230 miles from completing the trail when she injured her leg, forcing her to stop her hike in February.
During the trek, she encountered a variety of Jewish communities, inspiring her to spearhead Israel Café at the Federation. The monthly lecture, held on the second Wednesday of every month from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., will explore the different groups of people she met on her journey.
Describe the pre-army program and your experience as a counselor.
I helped run the program and helped the participants learn more about themselves, which also helped me learn more about myself. The idea behind the program is that participants will become more prepared for the army and also for life. They learn how to become leaders, travel across Israel and do physical training.
One of the unique things about the program is that it allows Israeli Jews as well as Jews from abroad — who are taking a gap year through a Masa program — to interact with one another. They live together, volunteer together and learn together. The program was in English for three months, and then we switched to Hebrew. Once the program was over, most of the gap-year students went back to the states to go to college and the Israelis went on to the army. The program also focuses on Jewish peoplehood and Israel as well as the connection between the two.
Why did you decide to become a shlicha?
Being a counselor in a pre-army program helped me understand the importance of the relationship between Israel and Jewish communities abroad. A lot of the other counselors I had worked with did the program of shlichut and told me about their experiences. I began to think that this was a really good time for me to explore Jewish communities outside of Israel.
What does your new position entail?
I will be holding a variety of events that will encourage people — from preschoolers to youth to adults — to explore what they know about Israel and learn more. Every month I’ll host Israel Café, and every Sunday I’ll work with religious school students at nearby synagogues. Since Israel is turning 70 this year, I’m hoping to do different types of events to celebrate her birthday.
How are you liking Maryland so far?
I traveled in the states for two months after completing my army service, but this is my first time in Maryland. I love the landscape here. There’s so many trees here, and it’s so green. And I really enjoy having a little forest just two minutes from my house in Columbia.