Last summer, the Gaza conflict put a damper on exchange programs between the Greater MetroWest community and Israel. Some were canceled, others delayed.
This winter, people are making up for lost time. A record number of groups — five in all, involving a total of 150 people, including escorts and supervisors — are traveling to and from Israel, in programs associated with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Two are going to Israel — Diller Teens and Seminar Kehilati — and three are coming to the GMW community — Project Gesher, Kibbutzim College, and Neshama Yetera. (See box for descriptions.)
Tal Magere knew just what he wanted the Israeli teens in the Project Gesher group he accompanied to New Jersey to see — both the religious pluralism that changed his own view of Judaism and the warmth of the welcome Israelis receive here — proof of “the amazing partnership” their home community of Ofakim has with Greater MetroWest.
He said, “I want them to understand that it isn’t just about money going to Israel, that we really are one big family.”
Magere has seen both sides of the “Living Bridge” between the local GMW community and the Israeli communities of Ofakim, Merchavim, and Arad with which it is linked through the Partnership2Gether program. He initially came to the federation as an emissary in 2007-08, and since then has taken part in various projects, including as a counselor in Cherkassy, Ukraine, and with Onward Negev fellows. Now on the P2G staff in Ofakim, he returned with the Project Gesher group for a stay from Dec. 18 to 27, bringing together 20 Israelis and 20 Americans.
The local participants in the Diller Teen program were supposed to join their counterparts in Israel in July. Instead, they finally headed out last Thursday. Before leaving, the 20 local participants gathered at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. Farewell conversations with parents and supervisors were interrupted by squeals of delight and big hugs as they greeted one another.
Meredith Weinerman, 16, of Chester, said: “The entire thing feels surreal.” After the trip was cancelled in the summer, she said, “I convinced myself we wouldn’t go at all so I wouldn’t be disappointed. Now my bags are packed. I’ve never been to Israel and I still can’t believe we’re going. It probably won’t hit me till we land. I’m very excited.”
Paige Epstein, 16, of Randolph, when asked what she was looking forward to about the trip, said, “I’m really excited to go to school with my host teen. I’ve been to an Israeli middle school — I took a trip with my class when I went to Hebrew Academy [now Gottesman RTW Academy, in Randolph] but I’m really looking forward to seeing how they incorporate American society into their curriculum. I know they have a big focus on speaking English.”
Meredith’s mother, Shari, asked whether she was worried, said: “Relatively speaking, given where we’re coming from — last summer when the trip was cancelled — no, I’m not. But I am a little jealous. I’ve never been to Israel before.”
Paige’s mother, Rona, said, “I have no worries at all. I had major worries over the summer. In fact, I don’t think I would have let her go then.” She was leaving for Israel herself the next day, for a family trip that was also postponed from the summer.