Honor captured Israeli soldier during Passover, emissary says


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As Passover begins at sundown tonight, Efrat Avramovich is asking Pittsburgh's Jews to remember Gilad Shalit, 22, an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants since June 2006.

"Israel is such a small place that everyone knows everyone. He is one soldier, but he is the son or the brother to all of us. This is his third year of captivity and Pesach [Passover] is about freedom," said Ms. Avramovich, an Israeli who serves as a volunteer cultural emissary from Israel to Pittsburgh.

Passover is an eight-day holiday commemorating the flight of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It begins with a ritual family meal in which the story is retold.

"I hope they will leave a plate on the table to remember Gilad," she said.

Ms. Avramovich, 28, grew up in Ashkelon, a coastal city that has been struck by rockets from Gaza. She attended university in Jerusalem, majoring in political science and sociology. She had a dream job working for the Joint Distribution Committee, a global Jewish relief organization, when a friend urged her to become a Young Shlicha -- an emissary to Jews outside of Israel. Ms. Avramovich insisted that she was too old, and must focus on her career. Her friend submitted her resume without telling her, and Pittsburgh's Agency for Jewish Learning and United Jewish Federation chose her.

"I feel this is my life now. It comes from my heart. I am so grateful that my friend did what she did for me," she said.

The Young Shlichim is an offshoot of a program that began in Pittsburgh 13 years ago as a way to allow conscientious objectors to Israel's military service -- typically Orthodox Jews -- to do alternative service overseas. That program, founded by Pittsburgher Zipora Gur, is now in 147 nations. The Young Shlichim are older and have finished military service.

Pittsburghers have been universally welcoming, Ms. Avramovich said.

"I got off the plane, and everybody was so nice. Jewish or non-Jewish, Pittsburgh is one big family, especially when it comes to sports," she said.

Although her role is to familiarize Americans with Israeli life, she'll be taking American Passover customs back home when her service ends in September. She discovered the "chocolate seder," which teaches teens the adult roles. They dip strawberries into chocolate sauce instead of parsley into salt water, and substitute chocolate milk for wine.

"That's something they don't do in Israel, where Pesach is more about tradition," she said.

She has worked with young children at suburban synagogues, doing crafts and music about Israel. With teens she has more serious discussions, including about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has spoken on that topic at several public and private schools.

She thinks many Americans conclude from pictures of dead Palestinian children that Israel fires indiscriminately on civilians. Rather, she said, civilians are killed because Hamas fighters use homes and hospitals as bases to launch their missiles.

At the same time, she said, she emphasizes that many Palestinians deplore the violence. She hopes for a negotiated peace, and a time when Israelis and Palestinians will live in harmony.

Her time in Pittsburgh provided opportunities to meet people from other perspectives, she said.

When she was invited to address a youth event of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, she met representatives from Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority.

"It was a lovely conversation," she said. "The one from Syria said, 'I am your neighbor' and the one from the Palestinian Authority said, 'I am your brother.' I told them that sometimes it's easier when you are outside Israel to sit down and talk and listen to the other. The change must start within us."

That is one of the reasons to remember Gilad Shalit, who wanted peace, she said. When he was 11, he wrote a story, "When the Shark and the Fish First Met" about how predator and prey convinced their parents that they could be friends despite a bloody history between their families. After Mr. Shalit was captured, the story was illustrated and published.

"At the seder, we say 'Next year in Jerusalem.' We hope that it will be next year in Jerusalem for Gilad Shalit," she said.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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