The Hebrew word shaliach means “one who is sent.” For years, Rabbi Evyatar Ifergan has perfected that role.
The process of becoming an emissary, he said, began well before arriving in Pittsburgh last August.
Nearly 12 years ago, around the time of their wedding, Ifergan and his wife, Chen, began discussing the possibility of making the U.S. a temporary home.
“We were busy as students,” Ifergan, 35, said. “Then kids started showing up: one baby, the second and then the third one. It was a busy life.”
As their children aged, Ifergan worked as a nurse; still, he kept thinking about teaching Diaspora Jews about Israel. Finally, during a shift at the hospital, Ifergan realized he truly “wanted to do something else.”
He enrolled in a post-graduate program for science instructors, began teaching and kept working as a nurse.
Even after taking on his new job, though, Ifergan couldn’t ditch the emissary itch and the family decided it was time to explore foreign outreach.
The Israelis registered with the World Zionist Organization and spent a year in Dallas, and a summer in a New York camp, before arriving in Pittsburgh several months ago.
Leaving Israel was somewhat challenging for their children, who are now 10, 7 and 6, but the transition to Pittsburgh was “smooth,” he said.
“The first day of school they just walked inside, and it was great,” Ifergan continued. “They’re very lucky.”
Their kids attend Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, and Evyatar and Chen Ifergan both work at the Jewish day school. Chen teaches Judaic studies and Hebrew to first graders. Evyatar teaches Mishnah (a precursor to the Talmud and earlier written record of Jewish oral law) and Hebrew to middle schoolers, and Chassidut (Hasidic philosophy) and Hebrew to high schoolers. He also runs an extracurricular drum club.
Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is “amazing,” Evyatar Ifergan said. “From the first day, we just felt home.”
The past month has reinforced that sentiment.
On Oct. 7, the Ifergans were in Pittsburgh, celebrating the Jewish holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Nearly 6,000 miles away, Hamas launched a terrorist attack that led to the ongoing war in Israel, the deaths of 1,400 Israelis, and the abduction of an estimated 240 people, who are being held in Gaza. An estimated 10,000 Palestinians have also been killed, according to the Associated Press.
Although being an emissary had long been Ifergan’s dream, when the former IDF medic learned of Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, there was only one option, he said.
“Pittsburgh is a great place, but in that moment I felt I had to go, right now, immediately,” he said. “Chen knew I needed to go. She saw it. On the first day, she told me, ‘Go. It’s going to be hard for me but that’s what we need to do.’”
Ifergan texted his commander and began looking for a flight. All the while, Ifergan’s kids were crying.
“I told them, ‘I’m going to be back soon. The first opportunity I have, I’m going to be back’,” he said.
Ifergan flew to Israel from New York on Oct. 10.
He connected with his commander and traveled north. Ifergan phoned home.
“I told them that everything is OK and that I’m not in a dangerous place because I was recruited up north, on the border with Lebanon. I told them what kids need to hear,” he said.
Ifergan and his unit spent their time training and patrolling at night, he said. The relative quiet “is not like Gaza right now.”
For two weeks, Ifergan served alongside fellow soldiers and reservists. Back in Pittsburgh, community members rallied to support Chen and the Ifergan children. A meal train, complete with treats and toys, arrived constantly for the family. Friends stopped by to give extra attention to the Israelis.
“Even if we will stand up and say thank you for a whole day in a row, it won’t be enough for sure,” the Ifergans wrote in a thank-you message to the community. “We are so happy to be in this community and feel so at home. You have all made us feel so secure and safe.”
Two weeks after arriving in Israel, Ifergan asked his commander if it was possible to return to Pittsburgh. Given the relative quiet up north, Ifergan wanted to know if he could go home, see his family and continue his work in the Diaspora.
His commander agreed.
The Haifa-born emissary boarded a plane and flew back to Pittsburgh. On Oct. 25, a fellow teacher met him at the airport. Ifergan’s kids were in tow.
Since returning to Pittsburgh, Ifergan has spoken with students and colleagues about the war.
The emissary said he tries conveying a particular message based on his own experiences: “Do the research yourself. Don’t listen to social media, which is exploding from people all over with their own opinions and agenda — right, left, doesn’t matter. Please do the research yourself. Read history books and make your own opinion about the world.”
Through regular chats, Ifergan remains in contact with his commander. From his home in Squirrel Hill, he keeps reading about the situation in Israel. Each day, he continues teaching at Hillel Academy.
Shortly after returning to Pittsburgh, several acts of vandalism, including the spray-painting of hateful messages, occurred.
Ifergan isn’t scared, and neither should the community be, he said.
“These are the acts of a minority, whose purpose is just to bring our spirits down,” he said. “The purpose of these things, and the horrible videos that go on social media, is just to create pressure on us and pressure on the world. But we have to be strong and believe that we will win, eventually.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.