Israeli Diaspora Minister Has Atlanta Ties
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Israeli Diaspora Minister Has Atlanta Ties

Nachman Shai was a visiting professor at Emory University recently.

Government Press Office // Nachman Shai, left, with Dvir Kahana, outgoing director general of ministry and outgoing minister Omer Yankelevich.
Government Press Office // Nachman Shai, left, with Dvir Kahana, outgoing director general of ministry and outgoing minister Omer Yankelevich.

From the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2020, Nachman Shai taught dozens of Emory University students about Israeli leadership and diplomacy as a visiting professor of Israel studies. Now back in Israel, Shai was just sworn in as the new minister of diaspora affairs.

“I have dedicated the last 20 years of my career to strengthening the ties between the State of Israel and world Jewry,” Shai said at his mid-June swearing-in ceremony.

That doesn’t mean Shai’s ties to Atlanta have ended. He continues to serve on the board of the Center for Israel Education.

Ken Stein, president of CIE and director of the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, recalled why he hired Shai in the first place.

“His reputation was that of an effective media personality in terms of creating and staffing of an organization as well as being a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.” Stein was referring to Shai’s first high-profile position during the 1991 Gulf War. “He had a decade worth of Knesset experience, which gave him knowledge of how Israel works on the inside. He also had a fascinating doctoral thesis on Israel and the media, which was excellent. It’s hard to find a practitioner/scholar.”

Stein said Shai developed his own curriculum. “We decided to give him a chance to develop courses that would teach on topics I had never touched or that he was uniquely qualified for. He was meticulous as a teacher,” Stein said. He also described Shai as “affable, unassuming, articulate and knowledgeable, without being pedantic. It’s rare to find someone who can walk into a classroom, knowing how to tell a story. And he has a bag of stories that are endless.”

Eli Sperling said Nachman Shai was an asset to the Atlanta community.

Eli Sperling was an Emory lecturer and ISMI senior academic research coordinator at the time. He told the AJT that Shai’s Emory students were “lucky to have studied with such a figure. He was definitely an asset to the community.”

Beyond Atlanta, Shai also has had deep connections to the American Jewish community. Before serving for a decade in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, he was a senior vice president and director general of what became the Jewish Federations of North America. While he was in the Knesset, he founded the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People.

Sperling, who also taught with Shai at Duke University, said the issues that Shai will be dealing with as diaspora minister are “central to him in understanding the future of Israel. They have always been an area of focus for him.” Noting the politicization of Israel in American electoral politics, Sperling said that Shai will “have an uphill battle getting the right message. But he understands the issues that are important to American Jews,” especially about religion.

Ken Stein hired Nachman Shai as a visiting Emory professor.

In fact, one of Shai’s first meetings as minister was with the leaders of the three major denominations of Judaism, according to the Israeli government press office. “On behalf of the new government, I pledge that Israel will be open to the three religious streams and will give them full and open space and recognition. I’m looking forward to continuing to connect with Jewish leaders, communities and individuals across the Jewish world in the coming weeks in an effort to build a more open and mutual relationship between Israel and world Jewry.”

This emphasis is significant because, unlike in the previous government, the new ruling coalition doesn’t include an ultra-Orthodox party. Those parties don’t recognize the Reform and Conservative movements, to which the majority of American Jews belong. Part of Shai’s new position is to convey the interests of the diaspora community to Israelis.

According to Stein, Shai can say to Reform and Conservative Jews in the diaspora that he understands their issues. “Having someone who knows the issues and knows how to turn levers,” is a real advantage.

Sperling added, “One of Shai’s strengths is his ability to communicate across party lines in ways Israeli politicians can understand. The strategic goals of Israel include strengthening the bond” between the diaspora and Israel.

He noted that at 74, Shai is one of the oldest members of the Knesset. “For him, becoming diaspora minister isn’t a long-term career prospect. He’s a public servant and a great communicator.”

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