6,000 miles away, and somehow close to home

6,000 miles away, and somehow close to home

On a first visit to Israel, a reporter sees impact of local engagement

Cafe Ringleblum manager Elik Almog and community activist Naomi Efrat in front of a wall of the kosher eatery decorated with photos of the people and places of Be’er Sheva. The restaurant provides catering training to at-risk youth.
Cafe Ringleblum manager Elik Almog and community activist Naomi Efrat in front of a wall of the kosher eatery decorated with photos of the people and places of Be’er Sheva. The restaurant provides catering training to at-risk youth.

As a first-time visitor to Israel there were several things that struck me about the country: it’s very hot, everyone is constantly on their smart phones, the country is an interesting mix of old and new, and everything is “b’seder” — no problem.

My experience proved exhilarating if not exhausting from the minute I left JFK Airport in New York on Aug. 13. I traveled as a member of the press aboard a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight carrying 350 new olim (immigrants), including 127 young people joining the Israel Defense Forces.

After my arrival in Israel, although I had traveled nearly 6,000 miles, I never felt far from home.

In Rishon Letzion, I met a woman who had been watching her daughter swim with other youngsters in a pool at a community center that was thriving thanks to funding from New Jersey philanthropists. We walked to her street, named Kehillat (community) New Jersey.

I spent several days in the Negev desert, where NJ Jewish federations support a range of projects and partnerships, exploring efforts to develop a region that includes 60 percent of the land of Israel and only 8 percent of its population. The Israeli government is now actively encouraging settlement there, as a real alternative to the congested population centers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Throughout the Negev, the link and commonalities between Israel and New Jersey was clearly evident. Community centers, day care programs for the elderly, initiatives for immigrants from Ethiopia and at-risk youth, and projects fostering understanding between Israelis and Americans were sprouting like the date palm trees.

The programs were the fruit of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2Gether program. The desert communities of Tamar and Arad boast support from the federations of Monmouth County, Princeton Mercer Bucks, and Greater Middlesex County as well as the former Jewish Federation of Central NJ. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which now includes Central’s projects after its July 1 merger with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, also has a vivid presence in Merchavim, Ofakim, and Kibbutz Erez.

The merger has “created a whole new dynamic” in the region, according to Amir Shacham, director of Greater MetroWest’s Israel office. He predicted the state’s federations would soon be working cooperatively in “one big project” to make David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom a reality.

The merger has also brought Central’s Mack Ness Fund, a $15 million bequest for economic development programs in Israel’s South, into play for new initiatives.

In the old city of Be’er Sheva, at the partially completed Bloomfield Gateway to the Negev, a building project that is a Ness fund beneficiary, plans are being laid to settle an expected 600,000 people in the Negev and Galilee region by the year 2020, said Sol Fayerman-Hansen, resource development coordinator for the Or movement, founded in 2002.

Seven new towns have already been established with more in the works, said Fayerman-Hansen, who himself came from Montreal as a “lone soldier” — a member of the Israel Defense Forces whose parents do not live in Israel. Communities are springing up around cultural centers, synagogues, businesses, and day care centers. With help from Or, they are settled by garinim, seed groups of “like-minded” people “who want to live together.”

“We find that if one family moves then three more want to move,” he said.

Over lunch of sweet potato-stuffed ravioli at Cafe Ringleblum, a kosher dairy restaurant in a Be’er Sheva’s economically disadvantaged Dalet neighborhood, I met with Nili Avrahamy, the Partnership 2Gether director for Arad, and Ruthie Dan-Guri, Living Bridge coordinator of Partnership 2Gether for Arad/Tamar.

Avrahamy spoke of the bonds that have been formed at all levels — from the $100,000 emergency medical center in Arad “that has saved so many people’s lives” to the Gesher program that has brought together young people from Israel and New Jersey through Skype and visits to each other’s communities.

During the most recent visit in December, Gesher’s American youngsters and their counterparts in Arad toured Israel together.

“The project was a huge success,” said Avrahamy.

Naomi Efrat is an owner of the cafe, which receives Ness funding and provides professional catering training to at-risk youth, many of them Ethiopian. The director of Kehilat Kama — a collective that aims to lift the neighborhood’s fortunes — came to Be’er Sheva at the age of 20 “to be part of something.”

Her organization has rallied the community to get roads paved and to form businesses. When Efrat outlined the problems of the youth employed at the cafe — absentee fathers, school truancy, drugs, and alcohol — she could have substituted Trenton or Newark for Be’er Sheva.

I learned that although funding is still needed by Israel for targeted projects, the relationship between Israelis and Americans is now on a more equal footing. Israel can help Americans find a sense of Jewish identity to stave off assimilation while Americans can provide an example to Israel’s secular majority of the pluralistic options for living a meaningful Jewish life.

At the Partnership 2Gether office in Ofakim, a Negev community linked to Greater MetroWest by JAFI’s Peoplehood Project, I met with several members of the P2G steering committee.

Gali Shachaf, director of Ofakim’s Murray and Linda Laulicht Center for at-risk youth, noted that through visits back and forth she had realized that unlike Israelis, American Jews view their identity as both religious and cultural. The center was funded by the Laulichts of West Orange, longtime supporters of religious pluralism in Israel.

“For me this was very nice to see,” Shachaf said. By contrast, she said, while it was important for her Lithuanian parents to immigrate to Israel rather than the United States in the 1970s, their Judaism was celebrating holidays, but “the synagogue was for bar mitzvas.”

After returning from New Jersey, Shachaf suggested to her husband they find a Masorti (Conservative) shul where they could drive to Shabbat services.

Daniel Ben-David, a member of the steering committee who was also at the Partnership 2Gether office, went to synagogue for the first time in 25 years at a Reform synagogue in Bloomfield, as part of the 2012 Peoplehood Project, where he was amazed to see a woman cantor wearing a tallit and kipa and to hear live music.

“It was wonderful; it was fun,” said Ben-David. Although he still doesn’t attend synagogue regularly, his NJ experience gave him an understanding of how Americans have to consciously and creatively find ways to express their Judaism.

After years of hearing of the endless conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, I found it refreshing to see how well Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel can get along in everyday life. Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan were in Tel Aviv in large numbers frolicking with their kids in the Mediterranean and enjoying their falafel and gelato next to Jewish Israelis.

And it was striking to see how Israelis take security issues in stride — that somehow, things will be “b’seder.”

At Kibbutz Erez in the northwestern Negev, Itzhak Amitai took me on a tour of the community, which —except for the occasional turkey roaming around — had the feel of an American condo complex with its blooming flowers, tennis courts, and swimming pool.

Nevertheless, the Greater MetroWest federation has helped fund bomb shelters, “safe rooms,” and other security measures for the border kibbutz. Amitai, the liaison to Greater MetroWest, and I climbed up a hill to a monument bearing the names of kibbutzniks who died in Israel’s wars and conflicts. We looked down at Gaza, only a half-mile away.

“You see it is quiet,” he said.

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