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In step on Israel, and eager for a bigger footprint
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In step on Israel, and eager for a bigger footprint

Before merging to become the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, the leaders of the two constituent communities had to clear a number of hurdles: combining cultures, blending finances, and establishing a level of trust.

But in at least one area, the Jewish philanthropies were in harmony: supporting Israel. Both committed a relatively large percentage of their resources to projects there, both had a keen interest in helping its under-developed South, and both emphasized “people-to-people” contacts between givers here and communities abroad.

Leaders of the Greater MetroWest federation — formed from the merger of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — say its Israel programs will be among the greatest beneficiaries of the new partnership.

“Our merged community is going to be one of the more involved and active North American federations when it comes to Israel and overseas,” said Amir Shacham, who after heading MetroWest’s office in Israel will now direct the combined efforts.

Those include MetroWest’s Partnership2Gether programs in Ra’anana, Rishon Letzion, and Ofakim-Merchavim and Central’s partnerships in Arad and Tamar and other parts of Israel’s Negev region.

Shacham plans to add a staff member to direct Negev operations as well as another project initiated by Central: the Mack Ness Fund, a $15 million bequest that funds economic development programs in Israel’s South (see box).

“It is one program with which we are very much in alignment in our commitment to the Negev,” said Lori Klinghoffer, who became Greater MetroWest president following the July 1 merger.

The merger will also give Greater MetroWest nine shlihim, or emissaries from Israel, creating the largest such delegation of any federation in North America.

Both federations were known for a generous “split” — that is, the amount of money they allocated to Israel compared to local beneficiaries. In 2010-11, UJC MetroWest’s Israel and Overseas committee allocated some $5.7 million to Israel, not including totals from foundations and other sources. For 2011-12, Central allocated $1.25 million to Israel and overseas — nearly 50 percent of its allocable dollars — as well as an additional $400,000 through its Ness and outreach and engagement grants.

“The footprint we are going to have in Israel will potentially be more exciting, and that can inspire people,” said Don Rosenthal of Westfield, who chaired the Central federation’s financial resource development committee.

Shacham agreed, saying that the merged programs will provide “an opportunity to upgrade our lay involvement” and create “a great tool for building identity, upgrading involvement, developing leadership, and raising funds.”

But in a July 20 e-mail, Shacham noted some “challenges” that lie ahead for the post-merger federation.

“In spite of the fact that our community is a national leader in Israeli operations and engagements, we are still facing a major challenge to attract and involve lay leaders to our committees,” he wrote. “This is true especially regarding the younger generation” in the United States.

He suggested one means of attracting younger leaders is “connecting with young communities, groups and organizations of idealistic young adults, who are taking responsibility for the common future of Israel and are active in different social fields.”

Another challenge lies in Israel. “The common values that united us have weakened and the notion of mutual responsibility has dwindled. This process is not healthy for any society, but particularly has an impact for Israelis who are still fighting for their existence and legitimacy,” he said. “When we add this to the dramatic demographic growth of two sectors: the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab minorities, who are both defined by being separatist and by not taking a full share in the economy and security, the issue is exacerbated.”

Years before recent religious tensions within Israel prompted global headlines, MetroWest made pluralism and Jewish identity within Israel a signature of its giving. It supports dozens of programs meant to bridge a divide between the “religious” and “secular,” and in 2010-2011 allocated $350,000 for such programs.

Last month, MetroWest leaders attended the 10th anniversary celebrations for Kehilat Ra’anan, a Progressive (Reform) synagogue and community center in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana. As one of its first religious pluralism projects, MetroWest provided seed money for the congregation and helped secure its property in what at the time was an underdeveloped neighborhood.

Attorney, philanthropist, and past MetroWest federation president Murray Laulicht, who with the late Jerry Waldor was instrumental in supporting the congregation, discussed its wider impact in a recent e-mail to Shacham. “How fabulous it is to see that the congregation continues to thrive,” Laulicht wrote. “The remote area in which the synagogue is situated is also thriving with new homes and schools all around the synagogue.”

Shacham said the federation will continue to work with “all religious streams, including initiatives aimed at the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel as well as with governmental and municipal agencies.”

In a preparatory mission to Israel last March, leaders of both federations visited about 20 projects or communities in all, ranging from a community center at a Druze village, to a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in the Galilee, to projects in the Be’er Sheva and Arad regions that focused especially on the work of the Ness Fund.

“I think we are one and the same in our commitment to and passion for Israel,” Bob Kuchner, a past president of the Central federation and the incoming Israel and overseas chair of the combined federations, said at the time. “We care about the same things, [and] we are committed to making them grow.”

Shacham believes “Israel is an essential component of our personal and communal Jewish identities…We aspire to motivate Israel connections among every Jewish individual, family, and communal institution in our home community in New Jersey as well as among our overseas partnership communities.”

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