JERUSALEM — Chief executives of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey were in Israel last week to tour projects initiated by both federations.
Max Kleinman and Stanley Stone said they planned the joint visit as the latest step toward combining their Israel operations ahead of an anticipated July 1 merger of the two federations.
“The Israel part has been a model for the rest of the merger,” said Kleinman, executive vice president of UJC MetroWest. “Israel and overseas is at the core of our mission; the Israel and Overseas group has done exemplary work. Are there going to be changes? Yes. But the core values will remain the same.”
The two federations have been funding and organizing similar work in Israel. MetroWest has a partnership with the Negev development town Ofakim and the surrounding Merhavim Regional Council that was initiated by the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 (now Partnership 2gether) program in 1996.
Central has had a similar partnership with Arad, another Negev development town, and the nearby Tamar Regional Council.
Central has expanded its philanthropic work to the rest of the Negev thanks to the Mack Ness Fund, which supports small business development. MetroWest has ongoing partnerships with Rishon Letzion, Ra’anana, Kibbutz Erez near the Gaza Strip, the Gush Etzion bloc outside Jerusalem, and the northern Druse village of Horfesh.
Following the merger, all those partnerships will continue under the leadership of MetroWest Israel operations director Amir Shacham in tandem with Central’s Israel director, Tehila Nachalon. The two joined Kleinman and Stone in meetings with the mayors of all the partnership communities.
“The mayors see the merger as a force and a benefit to them,” Stone said following the meetings. “MetroWest’s projects are inspiring. It’s quite amazing to see the longevity with which MetroWest has stayed with its partners and the creativity and positive energy of their innovative projects that are a model for the rest of the country.”
Stone was particularly impressed by MetroWest’s Atzmaut program, which assists the children of Ethiopian immigrants in Rishon Letzion. Their visit came amid news that an Ethiopian immigrant in Rishon Letzion had killed his wife and himself on Jan. 18. Driving southward from Jerusalem, Kleinman and Stone passed an Ethiopian immigrant who marched 30 miles from Kiryat Malachi to attend a rally protesting discrimination against Ethiopian immigrants.
“The recent incidents reinforce the need for an immigrant population that is used to not receiving help to be assisted in making the transition into modern society,” Stone said.
“There is too much tolerance for intolerance by Israelis,” Kleinman added.
‘On the right track’
Stone and Kleinman also met with Jewish former residents of the Gaza Strip in Halutziot, a group of four villages being built for them. Both federations have supported social services for evacuees after the Gaza disengagement.
“We were two of the only American-Jewish communities that responded to the crisis when nothing was being done on their behalf,” Stone said. “They were appreciative of the help we gave them when they were in dire straits. Their problems aren’t done yet, but they are on the right track. To see that they are finally turning the corner was heartwarming.”
The two executives met with residents of Kibbutz Erez on the border with Gaza, which has expanded despite frequent rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
“The rejuvenation of the kibbutz is symbolic of the Israeli spirit of not running away,” Stone said. “It encapsulated the hope that things could really be different here.”
Kleinman said he was also impressed by projects sponsored by the Central federation, including the Or Movement, which encourages young people to move to the Negev, and Hashomer Hahadash, a grassroots volunteer organization that helps farmers in the Negev and Galilee guard vast tracts of state-owned land from theft.
They also visited a center in Beer Sheva where allocations from the Ness Fund will enable the formation of a parliament of all the young adult centers in the Negev, which will come together to forge an agenda on a regional basis.
One issue that MetroWest has taken on perhaps more than any other federation is religious pluralism in Israel. Stone joined Kleinman in meetings with key figures on the issue, including representatives of the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements and iconoclastic Orthodox Knesset Member Haim Amsalem and Jerusalem city councilwoman Rachel Azaria. Both have played key roles in the fight opposing discrimination against women (see Related Article)
The Central federation has provided support for the Conservative synagogue in Arad. Stone acknowledged that some members of the Central community, which includes Elizabeth’s large Orthodox community, may not agree with the pluralism agenda.
However, “we’re not going to [reach] unanimity on everything,” he said. “While we haven’t been a leader like MetroWest in backing the religious streams, we haven’t backed down on our commitment to Israel being accessible to all kinds of religious expression.”
Stone and Kleinman praised the behind-the-scenes efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — which both federations support — in training and finding employment for members of the fervently Orthodox community.
Stone said the Israel visit left him more optimistic than ever about the merger of the two federations.
“I have nothing but the utmost respect for what MetroWest is doing” in Israel, he said. “It complements what we have done. The merger makes us stronger to help Israel.”