Israel emissary sets records during 4 years in East Bay

Nitzan Aviv's successor has big shoes to fill.

Literally and figuratively.

As Aviv boarded his plane last Friday to return to his home in Be'Erlyaakov, the 6-foot-6-inch former East Bay Israel Center director left behind a towering precedent for others to follow.

He could reel off his tremendous accomplishments in four years as Israel emissary to the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. But notwithstanding a colossal physique, Aviv's ego remains uninflated. Over the telephone just before he left, he admitted that he'd been dodging an interview for days: It was not out of rudeness, but out of modesty

"I am so embarrassed," he said. "I don't know what to say about myself."

Others, however, seemed to have no problem.

"He's one of the hardest working and most effective leaders that I have worked with in my 25 years of community service," said Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the federation. "He's also a very intense, warm, engaging human being. People have a tremendous amount of respect for his sincerity and hard work."

Stacey Simon, director of marketing for the federation, added: "I don't know a shaliach [emissary] from a shaliach, but as soon as I met him I knew he was special."

During his four-year term, more than 2,400 area Jews visited Israel through the East Bay's Israel Center — a number nearly as great as that of Jewish communities 10 times larger than the East Bay's.

In a nation in which only 25 percent of Jewish teens remain active within the Jewish community following their b'nai mitzvah, Aviv has made remarkable strides, said Nahshon.

"In our community, he has turned that number around," he said. "Seventy-five percent stay involved and only 25 percent drop out."

In an effort to make the trip available to a wider range of Jews, Aviv set up a permanent endowment fund with $2 million exclusively devoted to scholarship opportunities.

He also was the first in the country to promote trips to Israel by creating and opening an Israeli travel agency within the federation's walls; proceeds from the travel agency go toward the scholarship fund.

"Building up this Israel Center has been his mission and everything else in his life has been secondary," said Nahshon. "When most of us go home to relax and refresh after working a 50- or 60-hour week Monday through Friday, he just goes into weekend work mode."

For the past several years, the East Bay federation's two summer programs have continuously come out on top, ranking Nos. 1 and 2 in the Jewish Agency for Israel education department's survey of all U.S. community-organized Israeli trips.

David Rax, education department director of the Jewish Agency's American branch and Aviv's Israeli supervisor, confirmed this.

"The program has been devoted not only number-wise but also with regard to the educational components of the trip," he said. "They set an example for structure — constant improvement and advancement in that area."

He said the East Bay federation serves as a shining example of a cooperative effort between a local U.S. community and the Jewish Agency.

"Much of this is due to [Aviv's] hard work and dedication," he added.

But Aviv said he was just trying to show American youth the "real Israel" in the best way he knew possible — by getting them out from behind a tour-bus window and into the country's infrastructure.

"Many thought Israel is a land of camels and desert. Others thought it was only a place of war," he said. "I wanted them to see that Israel is a normal place, just like their country.

"It's also a different country with a different culture," he said. "There are good and bad things in both places."

Aviv said much of the credit given to him should go to his staff and former shlichim (emissaries).

"My work was based on work done by my predecessors," said Aviv. "I just took mostly the same things and made them bigger. A lot of this is also due to my staff. I believe a good director is one who has good deputies."

Now at home in Israel, Aviv is exploring various options, including continuing with the Jewish Agency or pursuing opportunities in Israel's booming high-tech industry.

And now he said his successor Amir Segal, who begins in late August or early September, can continue his work.

Aviv's journey home is bittersweet. While he and his wife packed away "a whole chapter" in their lives in the weeks preceding their departure, he cherishes fond memories of his four years in the East Bay.

"I have mixed feelings," said Aviv after a moment's pause for reflection. "On one hand Israel is my country and real home. On the other hand the East Bay has become my second home. It will be missed."