The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is enhancing its relationship with the Negev city of Arad in what it hopes will be the creation of a new model for American-Israeli cooperation.
The newly launched Arad Renewal program aims to shift the relationship between the federation and the Israeli community from one-way philanthropy to one of partnership and people-to-people relationships.
Under the program, handpicked volunteers on both sides will visit one another and build what they are calling a “living bridge.”
Last month, 10 volunteers from the NJ federation spent three days in the region as part of a mission to build such one-on-one relationships.
“The idea is not that the NJ people are going to rebuild Arad, but together we and the people of Arad are working to figure out what is needed and how we can help each other,” said Randi Brokman, Israel and Overseas associate at the federation. “The goal is not to build a building but to create understanding and caring that will become the basis for ongoing cooperation.”
Deep in the desert, Arad is known in Israel as a “periphery” city. Such communities either lack a strong economic base or haven’t attracted population growth from the country’s center.
The relationship with Arad predates the 2013 merger of the historic MetroWest and Central NJ federations. Prior to the merger, Central belonged to a seven-federation cluster from Delaware and southern and central New Jersey that partnered with Arad under the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 (now Partnership2Gether) program, an effort that still continues.
“Their paradigm is philanthropy, with the federations giving to Arad to help do things in their community,” Brokman said. “It was less built on relationship building than the newly created ‘renewal’ program that we have taken on now that Arad is one of the Greater MetroWest Partnership2Gether communities. We are renewing the relationship in a different paradigm.”
Her ideas mesh with those of Eyal Keydar, who chairs the Israeli end of the Arad Renewal program.
“The old way was philanthropy, and it was the basis of everything,” he told NJJN in a phone interview from his home in Arad. “The Americans gave us money and we spent it.”
During their brief visit, the 10 people from Greater MetroWest made intense connections with a handpicked group of Arad citizens who were fluent in English. “We ate their food, we lived in their homes, we slept in their beds, and we did all kinds of things that were bonding with these people,” said Kala Paul of Summit, who chaired the NJ end of the mission.
“We went on a tour they called ‘My Arad,’ and we saw their favorite spots and they told us about their history and what it meant to them. Just as we have an innate sense that we are Americans, they have an innate sense that they are Israelis who live in Arad and are proud of that,” Paul said.
Working with professional facilitator Uri Bar-Ner, the New Jerseyans and their hosts modeled their visions with arts and crafts, including a bridge made of tongue depressors that symbolized the connection between Arad’s present and future.
“It was like a love fest, the best of family meetings, like a wedding or bar mitzva where there was only pleasant stuff,” said Paul.
It was the first time that Robin Plattman of Berkeley Heights had been to Arad. She described her visit as “a whirlwind experience. I hope to spend more time together and connect person-to-person with them because when we were there we did a lot of work together,” she told NJJN.
That chance will come in July, when a delegation from Arad will visit the Greater MetroWest area.
Keydar said his contingent can be of special assistance to American community members “who have been struggling to keep up their Jewish identity, especially the young people and their intermarriage. I think we can help the Jewish community abroad with this struggle, because in Israel the Jewish identity is very strong.”
Paul has some ideas that focus on promoting religious pluralism among the Jews of Israel, where Orthodoxy is the dominant religious model.
The visit scheduled for July will be designed to help Aradniks understand Jewish life in Greater MetroWest and provide opportunities to meet members of the GMW community and plan joint programs that will have an impact on both communities and strengthen their partnerships.
“When they come here we want to show them parts of the Jewish experience,” Paul said. “In Israel it is very rare to find a Conservative shul or a Reform shul or any alternative service. Most of what is in Israel is Orthodox, and if that’s not your bag, you are effectively shut out of Jewish worship there,” she said.
“But we also want to give them entertainment, some fun things to do, like shopping,” she added. “We will continue our team-building exercises and we want to let our communities meet them. Then we can decide on where our partnership is going in the foreseeable future.”