East Bays new emissary looks forward to filling role

For his first few weeks here, Amir Segal intends to adopt sponge-like qualities; he wants to soak up everything that people tell him.

Especially since the federation system doesn't exist in Israel. As new emissary, or shaliach, for the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, he said, "I have a lot to learn. I want to speak with as many people as I can, and learn what the needs of the community are."

After an exhaustive, two-month search that let them become all too intimate with the Bay Area's housing crisis, the Segals are finally settling in to their new home in El Cerrito.

A commercial and labor lawyer from Nof Yam, near Herzliya, Segal, 43, is here with his wife Michal, a travel agent, and their three children: son Guy, 12; daughter Omer, 9; and son Yuval, 5. They attend Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, and Michal will soon begin working at the federation's Israel Center.

Segal is a fifth-generation sabra on his father's side, and his mother's family emigrated from Germany in the early 1930s.

He wanted to be a shaliach for ideological and personal reasons, Segal said.

On the ideological side, he is a lifelong Zionist and community activist. "I like the idea of giving something to the Jewish people and the Jewish country," he said.

In Israel he was active in a youth movement, and while attending Hebrew University he organized student activities to help those in poor neighborhoods and new immigrants.

"I was always involved somehow," he said, "and an opportunity for me to do it as a professional — I had to jump at it."

On a personal level, he and his family have visited the United States several times before, and they all thought — the children included — that living here for a few years would be a wonderful learning experience.

"There are things you see from here that you don't see from there, and the opposite," he said, adding that his family "pushed me. They really wanted it, which made it easier for me. They see it as a big adventure."

Segal said that of all places in the United States he could have been sent, he felt lucky to be chosen to come to the East Bay; it was his first choice. He is looking forward to exploring the Bay Area, but the area also appealed to him because its Jewish community has such a longstanding and well-established commitment to Israel.

"The people here are very dedicated to their relationship with Israel," he said. While he's heard that at some federations, shlichim can sometimes feel that Israel isn't high enough of a priority, that's not the case here. "I know I will have the full chance to do things I believe in here," he said.

Segal said he feels his greatest challenge is ensuring the connection between Israeli and American Jews remains strong. Taking teens to Israel is a crucial tool, he believes, but he hopes to make sure that those young people stay involved once they return home.

"I would like to try to find a way to use that energy we already have from summer trips to develop youth leadership," he said.

He also hopes to get more laypeople involved, saying, "I am very much a shaliach of the entire community, not just Israel."

Luckily, the infrastructure for these things is already in place, he said, and he will strive to improve them. "A lot of work has already been done here. I have to learn how to help them continue."

Acknowledging that the shaliach's job description has changed somewhat from the past, Segal said he hopes to bring more Israeli residents of the Bay Area back into the Jewish community, because everyone can benefit.

"We are in a new world now," he said. "I have some friends who have chosen not to live in Israel, and I can understand it, and I don't judge it. In the new world, everyone can choose."

The issue now, he said, is not that Israel needs immigrants to keep it strong, but that a strong relationship between Israeli and American Jews can benefit both groups.

Segal wished his new community a Shanah Tovah, and said to think of him as a resource for all things related to Israel.

He is eager to field all requests, whether they be educational, cultural or whatever.

"I'm lucky," he said. "I get to take three years of retirement in the middle of my life to do the things I want to do."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."