As 22-year-old Inbal Lev celebrated the first night of Hanukkah in Chattanooga, she was half the world away from her family and home in Israel.
It could have been a sad occasion, but instead of dwelling on the loved ones she misses, Lev offered her iridescent smile to dozens of Jewish people who live in the Scenic City.
The occasion was festive. As vehicles passed through the parking lot of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, Lev helped to distribute latkes (pan-fried potato cakes), Jewish doughnuts, gelt (chocolate coins) and first night candles to the occupants.
Later, the community gathered on Zoom to light their menorahs and watch a performance of traditional Jewish folk songs.
Lev afforded more than her smile and some delicious food to the people in the vehicles; she also provided a connection to the Jewish homeland.
She hopes these ties will grow over the next two years as she serves as the cultural emissary to Israel at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, she says.
“I want to get to know everyone,” she says over Zoom. “I want out of this window so I can meet people face-to-face.”
Lev is not the only one who’s looking forward to making a connection; she says the people she’s in Chattanooga to serve are anxious to meet her, as well.
“I have almost every night of Hanukkah booked with another family,” she laughs. “A lot of people have invited me to dinner.”
Many of these invitations included a question about whether or not she’s planning to bring latkes, a traditional Hanukkah food made from potatoes.
“There’s nothing you can do wrong with latkes,” she says, her smile broadening. “But you still have to do them right.”
Lev arrived two months ago courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which sends cultural emissaries (“shlicha” in Hebrew) to Jewish communities around the world.
While in Chattanooga, she hopes to spend time with people of all ages and talk with them about present day Israel and whatever else rises out of their time together.
Lev already has a standing Zoom appointment every Tuesday with elderly women from the local Jewish community, who she says are always full of questions and enjoy hearing about Israel. After that, she meets with the children at Aleph Bet Children’s Center, the preschool at the Jewish Federation.
“I’m teaching them the colors in Hebrew,” she explains. “Every week, I try to think of a different game for teaching them Hebrew words. They’re really good; colors are easy for them.”
Lev has also spoken at a local Baptist church, and says she is willing to meet with more Christian congregations as she enjoys serving as a news conduit to Israel.
COVID-19 and how the country is weathering the pandemic has already come up in several conversations with local Jewish people, Lev says, and she was able to provide a firsthand account of what she saw and endured.
“Israel has had several total shutdowns,” she adds. “I arrived in Chattanooga 24 hours before the country closed for a fourth time.”
Although the virus is a pressing issue, Lev says her discussions with local Jews have generally centered on more uplifting topics, including her home and family.
The youngest daughter of a retired engineer and a social worker, Lev lives in a gated community of about 300 families in the northern part of Israel called Alon HaGalil.
Established in 1980 as part of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s program to bring the Jewish populace to Galilee, Alon HaGalil is not only a beautiful place, Lev says, it is also a part of a diverse region that includes several Arab villages.
Many of the people Lev has met in Chattanooga have expressed particular interest in learning about her family, as the generations that preceded her essentially lived the history of the Jewish people during the 20th century.
Lev usually begins with her great-grandparents, many of whom left their homes in Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere and immigrated to Israel, where they founded new communities, called “kibbutzim.”
The history of Lev’s family includes a post-Holocaust story that details how her great-grandfather Yosef Arnon found his wife’s brothers while searching for survivors in Poland.
“He didn’t know if anyone had survived,” Lev says. “One day, he recognized two of Tzeshka’s brothers by their eyes, which are just like hers.”
As Lev weaves a tapestry of captivating tales, she provides insight into Jewish culture through the decades. One set of grandparents, for example, met at a volleyball game – a popular sport in Israel in the 1960s – while another met at an Israeli folk dance class.
“That was a big thing in the 1950s, especially if you were single,” she explains.
Lev eventually arrives at her father, Alon (the engineer), and her mother, Limor (the social worker), who married in 1988. As she talks about the time her father was kicked out of high school for spending two months with the Hebrew Scouts in Houston and how her mother left her family to live in a different kibbutz, a sense of how a young woman from northern Israel would have the pluck to embark on an adventure in Chattanooga takes shape.
Lev is actually a seasoned traveler. While she was growing up, she and her family made numerous trips to distant places, including Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Instead of falling in step with other tourists, they would travel extensively and absorb as much of the culture and the geography as they could.
Lev’s first time encountering a Jewish community outside of Israel came in 2011, when she attended a summer camp for northern Israel near Detroit. She later joined a youth program connected to the city and in 2014 participated in a teen mission trip there.
Lev says these experiences not only broadened her understanding of the larger world but also opened her heart to helping others. After graduating from high school, she put her compassion into practice during a year of community service at a boarding school for at-risk children and youth near Tel Aviv.
While there, Lev and two of her friends were responsible for the daily care of 11 ninth graders. “We were their parents, their friends, their brothers or sisters, and their educators all at once,” she recalls.
Lev then served two years in the Israel Defense Forces – a requirement for all youth in the country. Her tour of duty included work with a special unit of the Israeli Military Intelligence, for which she coordinated extracurricular activities such as day trips.
Although Lev originally thought she would stay in the IDF after completing her mandatory years of service, she came to realize the military was not for her, and after leaving in March of this year, began searching for a new opportunity.
When Lev heard about the cultural emissary program at the Jewish Agency for Israel, she applied immediately. After surviving the interviews and tests, the agency assigned her to the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, which has participated in the cultural emissary program for a decade.
“I was lucky,” she says, her smile as bright as ever. “I couldn’t be happier than where I am today.”
Since arriving in Chattanooga two months ago, Lev has soaked up as much of the town as possible. She marvels at the memory of visiting Rock City with a fellow shlicha based in Washington, D.C. and “seeing forever,” and expressed surprise at how much larger things in the U.S. are compared to her home.
“Everything here is huge,” she laughs. “It starts with my bed. I have never had such a large bed – and it’s not even the biggest one. And every store goes on and on and on.”
Lev switches from cultural emissary to diplomat when asked about which American foods she enjoys the most, saying she’s eaten a few good burgers but is trying to be healthy and not gain weight.
In her spare time, Lev hopes to do many of the things she enjoys doing at home, such as spending time outdoors, reading good books, doing Pilates and editing short films. (Lev will screen a short film she made about her high school graduation Tuesday, Dec. 15. Go to www.jewishchattanooga.com and select the community calendar to learn more.)
Although Lev has experienced many different cultures and people and learned to acclimate to her surroundings, if one thing about living in Chattanooga has challenged her, it would be the differences between being Jewish in Israel and being Jewish in the U.S.
“In Israel, everyone is Jewish, so it’s easy to be Jewish,” she explains. “Everyone around you celebrates the same holidays, everyone around you knows the rules – like kosher or not kosher – but here, not a lot of the people around you are Jewish, so you have to work hard to keep your life Jewish.”
At the end of her two years in Chattanooga, Lev intends to return to Israel and attend college. Although her plans are not set in stone, she’s considering studying engineering.
Until then, she will be offering her iridescent smile, as well as a connection to the Jewish homeland, to all who will receive it.
“I hope to become part of this amazing community and bring myself and my Israel to you.”