While she’s not a formal member of any diplomatic corps, Tal Goshen-Gottstein is an ambassador of sorts.
Goshen-Gottstein is Hillel at the University of Washington’s first Israel fellow, one of a handful around the country. The Israel fellow program is a joint venture between the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel’s Schusterman International Center. She was selected after an extensive search process.
“My focus,” Goshen-Gottstein says, “is to work with anyone who identifies as Jewish from age 18 to 32” interested in Taglit-Birthright — the fully funded trips to Israel for young adults — or MASA for older students.
But there’s more to her mission.
“I think the main thing is just having an Israeli walking around, smiling…talking to people,” she says.
She will also bring some Israel-centered programming to Hillel that could be “political, yes, but also food and cultural.” Mostly, she adds, “I want to be a resource for students who have questions,” about Israel and Judaism, no matter what their background.
“She really understands the value of pluralism,” says Rabbi Oren Hayon, Hillel UW’s executive director, “and recognizes the wide diversity of views on Israel within the young adult community in Seattle… She is the perfect professional to meet people where they are, and help deepen their understanding of Israel.”
Growing up Modern Orthodox in Jerusalem, Tal attended a religious high school, but says she is “not observant anymore.” She lived in Canada for the first four years of her life, so her English — her “first language, but not my strong language” — is fluent, but charmingly accented.
The 25-year-old has a strong interest in programs that combine “education and searching for Jewish identity.”
She first worked in the U.S. three years ago as a shlicha, or emissary, at the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
“That opened my appetite, if you can say that in English,” she says.
Tal just finished her BA in psychology and philosophy from Hebrew University, having submitted her thesis paper just this month. Most Israelis attend university after military service, so finishing school quickly is the norm. But Tal “wanted to get a broader education before I got a degree” and took an extra year of classes in the humanities: “a lot of Bible, Jewish thought,” she says.
As a commander in the IDF Education Corps — Israel’s is the only army in the world with one — Tal taught soldiers who didn’t finish high school in a GED-type program. She instructed immigrants from around the world and members of minority communities, including many from Muslim and ultra-Orthodox communities, in English, Jewish citizenship, history, computers and more.
“I loved it,” Goshen-Gottstein said. “We got a microcosm of the Israeli education system.”
Continuing in this vein after the army, she taught at a variety of places including Machshava Tova, a non-governmental organization “dedicated to narrowing the digital gap which exists in Israeli society,” according to its LinkedIn page.
“I’m not a computer expert,” explained Goshen-Gottstein, who worked “on the basic level” with students who might not have even known what a mouse is. She also helped job seekers with résumés and other life skills.
Attracted to the UW Hillel position by the “pluralistic and open minded” language in the job posting, she liked that the organization has a counseling program, too.
“There is something just really special about what is happening here,” she said.
One of the first students Tal helped was Daniel Sieden.
“She had just arrived in America,” Sieden said. She was “extremely helpful. She has connections to every other person who can be of service and use, plus an overall knowledge of everything going on.”
As an Evergreen College graduate who went on Birthright this year, Sieden wanted both to return to Israel and participate in a service-learning program. Currently accepted into the Ten Project India program, he is waiting to hear if he’s been accepted into a program in Israel to follow that.
“She’s really open minded,” Sieden noted, “and so incredibly helpful.”
Pluralism has a strong role in Goshen-Gottstein’s mission here.
“My focus is to work with [any young adult] who identifies as Jewish… It’s very important for me to convey the message that I am open to hearing about everything,” where Israel and Judaism are concerned.
“I really want to meet people,” she said. “I’m very interested in seeing different Jewish communities” here.