Fixing Israeli Misconceptions:
An Interview with Roi Abecassis
Roi Abecassis has spent a lifetime working with Diaspora Jewry. His journey has taken him around the world and back again to his current role as Head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora at the World Zionist Organization. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Roi to learn more about his work with Diaspora Jewry.
Roi, thank you for speaking with us. You are Israeli born and bred, but have dedicated most of your adult life to working with Jews from the Diaspora. What inspired you to take this path?
I grew up in Kedumim in a family of mixed Moroccan and Yemenite heritage. My parents had served as Bnei Akiva shlichim in Sydney before I was born, but when I began my studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, I had never stepped foot outside of Israel. In my later years in yeshiva, one of my friends told me they were going to run a Bnei Akiva camp in Ukraine, which seemed, to me, like an oxymoron – I couldn’t wrap my head around what that even meant! But my interest was piqued, and I joined the camp as a madrich. I will never forget how moving it was to do mifkad and hear hundreds of chanichim sing their Russian-accented Hatikvah.
After yeshiva, I got more involved; I worked at World Bnei Akiva running the Hachshara programs in Israel, as well as camps in Belgium, France and Italy. After a few years, I thought my time at Bnei Akiva was finished – I got married, took the bar exam and was looking for work as a lawyer. But then I got a call offering us the chance to be shlichim in Scandinavia, based in Malmo, Sweden. We accepted, and it was a life changing experience. When you live in a small community like that, you realize that movements like Bnei Akiva are all that people have to hold onto their Jewish identity. You are helping a community that is fighting to survive.
After returning to Israel, I was the Sgan Mazkal of World Bnei Akiva before becoming Mazkal from 2015–2021. During that time, we expanded our work in communities like Germany and Argentina, created a pre-army mechina in Israel with 50% Israeli and 50% Diaspora students, and began building the new Beit Bnei Akiva, which is due to open soon. Two years ago, I became Mizrachi’s representative to Israel’s National Institutions, and I now serve as the Head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora at the World Zionist Organizations. A few months ago I also became the deputy chairman of KKL.
As a native Israeli who has lived abroad, what do you think Israelis misunderstand about Diaspora communities?
The first thing is simple: the numbers. Many Israelis grow up thinking that almost all Jews live in Israel and there are a few left in chutz la’aretz. They don’t realize that the majority of the Jewish people live outside of Israel! Growing up in a Jewish country, this misconception is understandable, but it is a big problem that they don’t grasp the scope and depth of Diaspora communities. Once you understand Diaspora communities properly, it also makes you realize that you cannot just tell people, “Make Aliyah” – it simply will not be effective.
Let’s start with your role as the head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora. What does this involve?
The World Zionist Organization is the official vehicle of the Zionist movement founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. In the past, this department was there to cater to Religious Zionist communities around the world. For example, for many years this department has organized conferences for rabbinic and lay leadership of small communities in Europe and South America to strengthen their connection to Israel and Zionism. We also run regional conferences for shlichim and community leaders to better work together; we ran conferences in Argentina in 2022, in Amsterdam in 2023, and G-d willing we’ll have the next conference in Mexico in 2024.
We also began working with yeshiva and seminary students through our Flying the Flag program. This program has so far engaged 4,000 yeshiva and seminary students with tiyulim, events and Shabbatonim, connecting them to Israel during their time living in the land. We have also been able to restore funding for yeshivot and seminary programs – through our Masa funding and Causematch campaigns we have raised 88 million shekels for yeshivot and seminaries since 2020.
You mentioned that you are now also the deputy chairman of KKL. What does that involve?
KKL is an immensely important organization, with a massive budget that makes a huge difference to causes both in Israel and around the world. KKL basically does two things – developing land, forests, and water sources in Israel, and Zionist education around the world. Through Mizrachi’s representatives at KKL, we ensure funding is provided for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) in the United States. We also aim to increase the number of shlichim being sent to Diaspora communities, and to strengthen Zionist education in global communities. This December, I am excited to be bringing a bipartisan group of Members of Knesset to South Africa, to expose them to the work of shlichim and help them understand the critical role they play for global Jewry today.
We also help the Religious Zionist community navigate a world that is often extreme, when so many issues are presented as black and white, and nuance and complexity are lost. This past March, we held a conference for Religious Zionist organizations to discuss the se’if haNeched, the rule that allows the grandchildren of Jews the automatic right to make Aliyah. This has become a hot button issue, and we discussed the issue with leading rabbis, academics and activists to form our approach to the matter. We had to fight just to be able to have conversations about this in the National Institutions; these days, being a centrist and trying to bring different sides together is out of fashion and requires a lot of effort. This is one of the major pillars of Mizrachi activity in the National Institutions – to be a voice that reduces divisiveness, and to try and find common ground rather than exacerbating tensions.
I am privileged to spend my days working for Diaspora Jews around the world – and then I return home to Modi’in and get to witness the miracle of the ingathering of the exiles to our homeland. On Shabbat in the park, I see Jews who are American, French, British, Israeli-born and more, all with our own communities and networks here in Israel. We are living in remarkable times, and it is something I am thankful to be part of.