Shay Rubinstein began his “Israel Café” talk by having everyone in the room introduce themselves and briefly describe their High Holiday visits. It was midday on a Wednesday, so the crowd of about 40 skewed older, and the introductions tended to involve grandchildren. Rubinstein, 22, is roughly the same age as their grandchildren, but as the new shliach (cultural emissary) for the Jewish Federation of Howard County, he’s taking on a role far beyond his years, beginning with Israel Café.
Federation program director Shauna Leavey said via email that the purpose of Israel Café, beyond introducing Rubinstein to as many people as possible, is “to educate HoCo Jews and others about Israel (be it social, cultural, religious, political, geopolitical, scientific, high-tech and other areas)” and “to celebrate Israel’s achievements, while also providing perspectives on the challenges Israel faces.”
Rubinstein is committed to that mission. “For me, it’s important that the people who attend the Israel Café lectures get to know and have authentic information about Israel, and after, they will get the tools to talk about Israel to their families, friends, peers and loved ones,” he said.
As a newly minted shliach, Rubinstein’s duties are varied. He is, in essence, the community utility infielder, showing up wherever he’s needed — schools, synagogues and people’s homes — to talk about his life in Israel and to promote a positive vision of the country. The first of his Israel Café lectures, hosted in a conference room at the Century Plaza Building in Columbia, focused on diversity in Israel, which Rubinstein illustrated by telling his own life story, punctuated with photos and anecdotes about his close friends of various ethnic backgrounds and his Polish nanny, with whom he remains close.
The majority of the lecture focused on his life in Tel Aviv growing up with divorced parents, riding on his father’s boat up and down the coast, serving as a student ambassador in France, loving soccer and more. All of it, he says, is in the service of providing authenticity, a term he returned to repeatedly throughout the afternoon.
“The people of Howard County have some negative thoughts about Israel, especially during this administration’s term of office,” Rubinstein said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “For me, it’s very important to provide authentic Israeli images, because what you hear on CNN or what you read in The New York Times or Washington Post or Fox News or whatever, it’s not accurate and it’s not authentic.”
Part of his lecture focused on dispelling popular representations of Israelis in the media. “I’m not going to share his story,” Rubinstein said to laughs, pointing to a picture of Erran Morad, Sacha Baron Cohen’s send-up of a macho Israeli commando.
Rubinstein didn’t shy away from the crowd’s more pointed questions about Israel. One woman remarked that she had been put off by Israeli enthusiasm for President Donald Trump during her last visit. Others pressed Rubinstein on the political influence of the “ultra-Orthodox,” especially regarding the Western Wall and LGBTQ rights.
For Rubinstein, who spent his time in the army communicating Israeli culture to other armies across the globe, such questions present an interesting challenge. Rubinstein, Leavey said, was enrolled in educational courses prior to his arrival that prepared him for the job, following a rigorous application process. “The shlichim are carefully selected for their engaging personalities, their wide breadth of knowledge and their abilities to communicate effectively,” she said.
“My goal here,” he told the crowd, “is to make you feel closer to Israel and to create a personal relationship with you guys.”