I was floating in a clean, crisp, natural pool in the middle of the Negev. My family and I had just traveled 30 minutes off-road with our new Israeli friends on a bumpy, thrilling ride. The landscape was reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. We had parked, walked another five minutes, then there it was in the distance.
The five children ran down the narrow path and jumped in, laughing and having the time of their life. As I stared at the nearly white cliffs and cloudless blue sky, all I could think was, How did I get to this place in the Holy Land, largely unvisited by tourists?
It started out simply, when in 1994 a friend from work dragged me to my first UJA MetroWest event. I was hooked pretty much from the start.
Over the years, my wife, Alia, and I have served on committees and boards and experienced all the good works of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. But in 2002, on the first of the three missions I have been on, UJC’s work became real and touched my soul.
In Cherkassy, Ukraine, I saw devastating Jewish poverty and how our dollars allow elderly Jews to live out their final years in dignity. I saw firsthand how Jewish identity, stifled for 50 years under communism, was once again flourishing through our support of the local Chesed and youth programs.
Fast forward to January 2007, when I participated in the Epstein Leadership Mission to Israel. I had not been to Israel since 1989, when I visited as a junior in college. Through the Epstein program, I gained a deeper sense of pride in MetroWest as I witnessed the way our dollars affect five Israeli communities. I came home inspired and motivated to continue my Jewish journey of giving back and encouraging others to do so.
About a year ago, I joined the Partnership 2000 committee. P2K connects us directly with our partner cities and programs in Israel; in the Negev, we help create programming in the city of Ofakim and the Merchavim region.
A new program called the Peoplehood Project was forming; its goal was to form living bridges between adult Jews in our partner community and in MetroWest. It sounded exciting and I was accepted — joining eight other Americans and nine Israelis.
‘Am I lucky’
As part of the project, I returned to Israel this past January with my new American friends and spent a week with our Israeli hosts, forming friendships and educating ourselves on the needs of the Ofakim community.
Daniel Uri was my host. Thirty-two and soon to be married, he lives in an apartment in Ofakim and works as a counselor with at-risk teenagers at the local matnas (community center). Daniel is passionate about his hometown and encourages young people who were born and raised in Ofakim to stay after their army service and raise families there.
The job opportunities are limited in this part of the country, but Daniel is optimistic about the future: He feels that one day Ofakim can be a shining star in the Negev. During this trip I got to know our other Israeli friends as we explored and compared religious pluralism and Jewish identity in our respective home communities.
In April, it was the Americans’ turn to host as our Israeli friends spent a week here continuing the dialogue of Jewish peoplehood. The groups deepened our bonds, discussing the similarities and differences of being Jewish in America and in Israel.
In July, my family returned from a tour of Israel celebrating my mother’s 70th birthday. Thirteen Ramers toured the country for 11 days; for another four days, my nuclear family drove around the South. We spent one day traveling with our friends from home, the Russos, as Amir Shacham and Michal Zur of MetroWest’s Israel office were kind enough to give us a personal tour of Kibbutz Erez, near Gaza, and of a working farm, where the kids milked goats and made cheese.
That night Efrat, one of our new Peoplehood Project friends, put us up in her home. For Shabbat, another PP participant, Gali, and her husband, Rami, welcomed us into their home for a wonderful dinner. I was so proud to hear my two older children, Avi, 10, and Tali, 12, converse in Hebrew with their kids. (Their Solomon Schechter education is really paying off.)
The “Jeep” ride in the “Grand Canyon of the Negev” was Gali’s idea of a fun adventure with the families. So there I was, lying on my back in the cool, crisp, clean natural spring looking up at the blue sky. Boy, I thought, am I lucky.
Thank you, UJC MetroWest. Thank you, Peoplehood Project. Thanks to all my new Israeli friends. All these years, I thought I was the one giving to the Jewish community, but in that moment, I saw what UJC has given to me and my family.