A living bridge to Israel: Being a shaliach after Oct. 7

Shlichim — Hebrew for “emissaries” — have long served as faces and voices of Israel. Stationed in Jewish communities worldwide, they play the role of cultural ambassador, helping people connect with Israel through conversations and experiences.

Oct. 7 upended their lives and their jobs. 

With Israel still dominating the headlines nearly eight months later, shlichim have been thrust into a new, emotionally charged role: helping their communities grieve as they process their own grief and standing strong as emotions run high as the war rages on.

Dean Bagdadi, who is in his second of a three-year commitment as the senior shaliach at Pozez JCC in Northern Virginia, said people need to hear from an Israeli who is “hurting but still going.”

“Collectively, as a Jewish community, we’re processing grief and anxiety,” Bagdadi said. “And when you’re experiencing these emotions, everything is valid. Anger. Resentment. Frustration. Denial. Everything goes.”

Among the 360-some shlichim in America, every single one of them knows someone who was murdered, kidnapped, or injured by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7. Bagdadi is friends with one of the hostages, Noa Argamani, who is from his hometown of Be’er Sheva in Southern Israel. 

To ensure Noa and the other hostages are not forgotten, he and his coworkers have displayed a large poster with their pictures in the lobby of Pozez JCC. Another initiative is to share and cook favorite recipes of the hostages so that when those dishes are being enjoyed, thoughts are reflected on the hostage and their family to keep them present.

“We can’t forget that families are missing their loved ones, who are alive but not safe,” Bagdadi said. “This is an open wound”.

To provide support, Bagdadi has helped Pozez JCC organize meaningful gatherings, including a vigil following the terrorist attack with 1,600 locals in attendance. He has also moderated a panel discussion with four survivors of Oct. 7, drawing a crowd of roughly 340 people.

Michelle Pearlstein, who serves as Development Director of Pozez JCC, said this high level of engagement has impacted a broad spectrum of people, who have found Bagdadi to be a calm, knowledgeable voice on Israel.

“Dean has been a source of strength, comfort, and a trusted resource for so many people, including those who are already connected but were in search of a little piece of Israel right in our community,” Pearlstein said.

Bagdadi has also been creating informal, safe spaces where people can just ask questions, addressing a communal ache to understand the complexities of Israel. The 28-year-old has met with adult groups at every synagogue in the area and led a one-hour Israel crash course for teens, among other engagement efforts. 

“What do we do now? How do we show up for Israel? How do we support our Jewish community here in Northern Virginia? How do we combat antisemitism? There are so many questions to be answered, and people need and deserve spaces where they can safely ask those questions,” Bagdadi said.

And he is well equipped to answer them. Bagdadi has been leaning heavily on his degree in political science from Ben-Gurion University, political nonprofit experience, and his personal Israel story.

While his efforts are making an impact in Northern Virginia, he carries the weight of being an ocean away from home. 

As Israel was plunged into war, Bagdadi was called to serve as a reservist commander, having formerly served as a logistics officer in the Israel Defense Forces. He was also called by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs the shlichim program, to support Northern Virginia, home of the largest Jewish population in the Washington, D.C. region.

Bagdadi had to make a choice: go or stay.

“Where would I be more valuable? Israel or Northern Virginia? All the pressure was on me to make that decision. And on a daily basis, I’m continuing to make the decision to stay,” Bagdadi said. “Right now, I feel like I’m more valuable here because I’m connecting people in Northern Virginia to Israel during a complicated and complex time.”

Former Pozez JCC President Scott Brown said there has never been a stronger need for an Israeli person, program, and presence. Northern Virginians need a shaliach like Bagdadi, who can help them know, wrestle with, and love Israel.

“Dean Bagdadi has been an enormous community resource,” Brown said. “He has stepped up and in, like the soldier he is. He has done it with amazing professionalism, sensitivity, and strength.” 

Pozez JCC Board Member Ryan Gardiner said Bagdadi has galvanized the community, and he is continuing to do so.

“Dean understands the importance of keeping our community not just engaged but informed, active, and connected to Israel, “ Gardiner said. “His advocacy work and engagement with us at both the individual and group level remains vital to maintaining Israel’s centrality to our community in Northern Virginia.”

Bagdadi continues to build community around Israel engagement. The goal to connect with others remains the same, even though the “how” has changed.

“Before Oct. 7, we were building community. After Oct. 7, we are still building community,” Bagdadi said. “So much has changed, but strengthening our community and making sure that Israel is a big, valuable part of it remains the same.”

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