“My Dream is That Every Jewish School Will Have an Israeli Shaliach”
An interview with Gael Grunewald, Chairman of the Mizrachi faction in the National Institutions
When Gael Grunwald made Aliya at age 18, he knew he wanted to make an impact in the Jewish state, but didn’t know exactly what that would look like. After decades of service at World Bnei Akiva and as Mizrachi’s representative in the national institutions, Gael today is the head of the Education Department of the World Zionist Organization, that sends hundreds of Israelis around the world as teachers in Jewish schools. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Gael, to learn about the national institutions, and his dream of sending a Shaliach from Israel to every Jewish school in the world.
Before we talk about your current position, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I grew up in France, and made Aliyah almost forty years ago. After learning in yeshiva and then at university for my computer science degree, I served as a head Shaliach for the Jewish Agency in Europe, during which time I lived in Belgium. I have been involved with Bnei Akiva and the National Institutions for the past 30 years, including serving as Director General of Bnei Akiva, Deputy Chairman of Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, and the head of the settlement division of KKL.
You have represented Mizrachi at the National Institutions since 2006. What are the National Institutions?
The National Institutions are a group of organizations – the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, the Jewish Agency – who are the representatives of the Jewish people as a whole. Israel is a sovereign country, and its state institutions officially represent the citizens of Israel. The National Institutions represent Jews from all over the world, and Jews from all over the world have their say in how they are run and what they do. There are so many different things that the institutions do, including encouraging Aliyah, promoting Jewish and Zionist education around the world, strengthening knowledge of Hebrew, providing social services for impoverished Jews, fighting antisemitism and BDS, and more.
The World Zionist Organization (WZO) was founded by Herzl in 1897, KKL was founded by the WZO in 1901, and the Jewish Agency was founded in 1929. The relationship between them is complicated and can be confusing. For example, the WZO is a little bit like the father, and the KKL is its child, but the child is today more wealthy than the father, as it owns some 14% of all the land in Israel.
In your current role, you are the Head of the Education Department at the World Zionist Organization. What does that entail?
Since the foundation of the State of Israel, the concept of shlichut, of sending representatives from Israel to Jewish communities around the world, has existed. I myself served as a shaliach in Belgium for Bnei Akiva. The Education Department sends hundreds of qualified teachers from Israel to Jewish schools and communities around the world. I have been in this role since 2020, following the most recent World Zionist Congress elections, and we have experienced tremendous growth in this field. Only a few years ago, in 2015, there were maybe 60 or 70 shlichim sent by our department, and today we have over 300! We have teachers in communities from the USA to New Zealand – and there is so much room for growth. My dream is that every single Jewish school in the world, from Charedi to Reform, will have a representative of Israel, an Israeli shaliach there.
How do you envision the role of the shaliach?
We talk about three circles of influence – classroom, school and community. All our shlichim are qualified teachers in Israel, and their basic, formal role is to teach Jewish studies and Hebrew in schools. However, many of them take on roles that are much broader than that. This year, our shaliach in Dublin, Ireland, was like half of a Chief Rabbi! He taught Daf Yomi and Tzurba M’Rabanan and was involved in kashrut and running communal events – and this was all above and beyond his teaching role in the school. I can’t tell you how many stories I know of young students who make Aliyah and say it was because of the impact a shaliach had on them. Successful shlichim change lives!
You talked about the shaliach’s role in teaching Hebrew. Many graduates of Jewish high schools around the world today can barely speak any Hebrew. How can this be addressed?
You are correct. I am worried about the state of the Hebrew language around the world. I still know of some schools such as in Belgium and Canada that teach Ivrit b’Ivrit, but in many schools this no longer exists. In fact, in Jewish schools in Brazil and Argentina, where they used to teach Hebrew as a second language, they now teach English instead. There are many different methods and approaches to teaching Hebrew as a second language, which educational experts can discuss. However, I think that ultimately all solutions start with a question of priorities. Schools focus on what is important to them, and if Hebrew is important to a school they will find their preferred method of teaching it.
What do you say to heads of school, to convince them that teaching Hebrew is important?
First, it is the global language that connects Jews all around the world. Second, it helps give people the tools to be successful if they want to make Aliyah. And even for those who don’t make Aliyah, Hebrew allows them to connect to Israeli culture, music, and literature. And finally, it helps the students learn Torah. We don’t want our students to only learn Torah through translation their entire lives, and being able to learn Torah in the original lashon haKodesh is a real value.
How do you see shlichut developing in the coming years?
In addition to the growth in the numbers of shlichim, I think we are now getting more and more ideological and highly motivated shlichim. Twenty years ago, there were some shlichim who were looking to make money by going abroad. But now, as salaries and quality of life in Israel have risen dramatically, the gaps for many of the shlichim between their opportunities in Israel and abroad have become smaller. Those going on shlichut are motivated by a genuine desire to be ambassadors of Israel and Torah to communities around the world – and we are excited to keep bringing these ambassadors to more and more communities!
It is also critical that the State of Israel invests in the Jewish and Zionist identity of Jews around the world. If until now, Diaspora Jews have given so much to build and support the Jewish State, it is now incumbent on the State of Israel to invest and support in Diaspora communities, and to take responsibility for Jews all around the world.