A burst of programs promotes ties between Israel and New Jersey
The Birthright group from Greater MetroWest takes in the view at Mitzpe Ramon during their 10-day tour of the country.
Photos courtesy Legow Family Israel Program Center
August 28, 2013
Alot of traffic has been crossing the “Living Bridge” between the Greater MetroWest community in New Jersey and Israel this summer, and more than ever, it has been two-way.
Hundreds of local participants took part in a range of programs in various Israeli communities partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, from young adults exploring Israel’s economic potential in the Negev to teens combining tourism with visits to Israeli nonprofits (see page 13).
Meanwhile, more Israelis than ever came to Greater MetroWest.
The numbers have been boosted by the merger last summer of the MetroWest and Central New Jersey federations, and, according to Amir Shacham, the executive shaliah with the GMW Legow Family Israel Program Center, the community’s growing stature.
“I want to be modest, but we are now one of the leading North American communities in running Israel programs, and possibly the leading one in the South, in the Negev,” said Shacham. “We have been able to leverage our connections, and more and more people want to partner with us. And the connection is working in both directions, with real reciprocity.”
Reciprocity has become pivotal in the relationship, turning what used to be a one-way dynamic — with Americans aiding Israelis — into a matter of mutual benefit. That has been the goal of Partnership2Gether, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s program linking North American and Israeli communities in a series of twinning activities and ongoing relationships.
To sustain those relationships, the federation this year will host the largest corps of Israeli shlihim — emissaries who come to educate local people about all facets of Israeli life — in North America. The eight shlihim arrived earlier this month (see related story).
Greater MetroWest arranged for 150 young people to go on Birthright, the wildly popular program that offers free Israel trips to college students and recent graduates. But it also sponsored exchange programs that brought Israelis here. One such program, Hoops Connection, has over the past few years sent youngsters to Israel to coach basketball together with Israeli counterparts. This year for the first time, the program started in New Jersey, with two Israelis coming here to work alongside four local teens, before they all returned to coach kids in the development town of Ofakim, joined by two more Israelis.
And while American volunteers are familiar with goodwill missions to Israel, this year featured an opportunity for Israelis to lend a hand in the United States. The Bonim Beyachad (Building Together) program brought 10 Israelis from Ofakim, Merchavim, Arad, and Erez to New Jersey’s Union Beach, where alongside 10 American volunteers they helped rebuild a house on the Sandy-ravaged Raritan Bay.
While funding remains a challenge in the current economy, Shacham said that Greater MetroWest has been able to fulfill its obligations to its various partner communities. The federation works with the Jewish Agency for Israel and has benefitted from increased collaboration with the Israeli government, which has made a priority of fostering Diaspora relations.
Two new partnerships are taking shape, he said. One is with the World Zionist Organization, which will be working with community youth shliha Rozi Ben Ami, helping expand her role with additional funding and program material.
The other is IsraelExperts, an educational tour operator.
“What pleases me particularly is that so many people want to take part in our programs,” Shacham said. “But we want more.”
Here, there and everywhere
A broad range of programs have linked the Greater MetroWest community and Israel this summer.
• The federation helped fill three Birthright buses, with 120 local young people joined by 30 Israeli soldiers for a 10-day tour of Israel.
• Twelve Israeli shlihim served in four day camps associated with the community.
• Six American and six Israeli madrihim, or counselors, worked together at Kefiada, a day camp for kids in the desert city of Arad.
• Six local students took part in Yeshiva University’s CounterPoint program in Arad, running enrichment and camping programs for disadvantaged area teenagers.
• Four Americans and four Israeli teens participated in the Hoops Connection basketball exchange, running basketball clinics and performing community service in Ofakim and NJ communities.
• Sixteen Onward Israel Negev Fellows lived in Arad and Ofakim for six weeks, meeting Israelis associated with development and research in Israel’s underdeveloped Negev, and exploring ways to boost the region through education, green energy technology, and civil society.
• Three Israeli and three American madrihim spent a week in Israel, then two weeks in a summer camp in Cherkassy, a central Ukrainian city where the federation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Community have, since 1996, focused on developing a struggling Jewish community. Counselors from Ofakim/Merchavim and the federation serve at the camp, bringing together Israeli, Ukrainian, and American Jews.
• Ten Israelis from Ofakim, Merchavim, Arad, and Erez joined 10 Americans to rebuild a house in Union Beach, NJ, during the first-ever Bonim Beyachad program.
• Twenty-two GMW Diller Teen Fellows spent three weeks in Israel, where they learned from fellow philanthropists-in-training at the international Diller Teen Leadership Congress and spent a week with their “sister” group of Israelis in Rishon Letzion, running a three-day camp for Ethiopian youth.
Snapshots from the Negev and Givat Haviva
Shira Gorelick, 19, lives in Livingston and is a sophomore at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. She was one of 16 fellows selected to take part in Greater MetroWest’s six-week Onward Israel Negev Fellowship. Participants learned about development education, business, health, transportation, energy, technology, civil rights, ecology, and politics in Israel’s underdeveloped South.
One night, during our stay in Mitzpe Ramon, we were taken by our tour guide and our group leader Rozi Ben Ami on a night hike. At the end of the hike, we all lay down and took in the vast starry sky, as this spot in the Negev is one of the last places left in the world where stars can be seen in all their glory without the effects of light pollution. The 16 of us, always very keen on expressing ourselves openly, were quiet in simultaneous moments of self-awareness. At that point, we all became aware of not only the beauty of the uncorrupted natural world, but the fact that we are part of it, a bigger picture that does not revolve around our personal goals or gain.
In the course of the six weeks, we delved into the issues of environmentalism and nature preservation, urbanization, military expansion, and minority populations within the Negev. We learned more about the construction of modern society as a whole, and that the people who make up society are responsible for building an ethical basis to build up from.
Whether we were volunteering in Ofakim, learning about Bedouin society, cooking group Shabbat dinners in Arad, working on our group projects or at our respective internships, or hiking through and exploring various parts of the Negev, we always kept the bigger picture in mind.We learned first-hand about the complexities of the various cultures that make up Israeli society. Ultimately, we were given dualistic points of views about issues, which allowed us to develop non-biased and authentic opinions as a group as well as individually.
Eli Schechner lives in Short Hills and is a senior at Millburn High School. As a MetroWest Diller Teen Fellow, he blogged about his participation at the international Diller Teen Leadership Congress, where youngsters learn about Jewish philanthropy and leadership.
Diller is sold as an international network of North American and Israeli Jewish teens. Yet it took until today, almost two-thirds of the way through the Israeli Summer Seminar, for the entire international Diller network to come together. At 9:30 this morning, the eight Israeli cohorts joined the eight North American cohorts at Givat Haviva….
Congress is giving us the opportunity to meet Jewish teenagers from across the world and bring our own rich histories to the table for an international discussion. While we spend most of the days divided in our “tribes” with one or zero other MetroWest Dillers, our nightly Ma’agal Leilah allows us to once again spend time with our New Jersey cohort. Tonight, before beginning our Ma’agal Leilah, we celebrated Juliet’s birthday with the Rishon Letzion Israelis. Tomorrow is the second day of Congress. In the evening, the first Shabbat spent with all of the North Americans and Israelis in Diller will begin. While the days remaining in this amazing Israel Summer Seminar are dwindling, we look forward to ending the trip and finishing Congress with a bang.