No one expected the first cohort of MetroWest’s Peoplehood Project to end up in Odessa.
But there they were, from May 3 to 11, 18 people from New Jersey and Israel, in the city where some of their ancestors had lived, spending time with some of today’s Jewish residents.
For the previous two years, these nine New Jerseyans and Israelis had been getting to know each other, living in each others’ homes, creating projects on either side of the Atlantic, and transforming each others’ ideas about Jewish identity.
The NJ contingent visited Israel in January 2010; a return visit was made by the Israelis that April.
The Peoplehood Project was conceived by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ to create a more balanced relationship with Merchavim and Ofakim in the Negev, its Jewish Agency Partnership 2000 communities.
“We wanted to create a group of Israelis and Americans on the same plane, to study Jewish peoplehood together,” said Lisa Lisser of Short Hills, local Partnership 2000 chair. “The new balance is about relationship building, not just about sending money.”
With 20 percent of the P2K budget allocated to the Peoplehood Project, the two-year blueprint called for parallel curriculums about Jewish identity and exchange programs culminating in a joint project that would have an impact on both groups.
Participants chose Odessa as an ideal venue for the finale — a “neutral” place that is steeped in Zionist history and the historical and contemporary meaning of Jewish identity.
“We had to go to a third community to spend time with each other. It just made sense,” said David Leit of Maplewood.
In the Ukrainian city, group members volunteered in schools, orphanages, and the homes of elderly or infirm Jews. They also got to know two local Jewish communities, one run by expatriate Orthodox Israelis attempting to cultivate residents’ religious identities, the other a more homegrown progressive model.
‘A lasting impact’
For Amy Fingeret of Randolph, whose grandparents came from Odessa, interacting with the orphans was “something I loved doing…. Being able to bring laughter to them was really meaningful to me,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview.
Ronna Scheckman of North Caldwell said this leg of the project sealed relationships. “It was a whole different atmosphere there. Israelis and Americans were all hanging out together in someone’s room, or going out together for a drink.”
Daniel Uri of Ofakim described what happened when the group’s flight back to Israel was delayed at the airport in Kiev: “We stood in silence in the middle of the airport while listening to the siren that opened Memorial Day in Israel for the IDF soldiers, through an iPhone, both Israelis and Americans.
“This moment made me realize that we are united as one big nation even if we are living in different parts of the world.”
During their visit to New Jersey, the Israeli participants said, they were struck by the diversity of Jewish religious life outside Israel. (In addition to spending time with local families and at local synagogues, they also met with Rabbi David Ellenson and Dr. Arnold Eisen, the heads, respectively, of the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.) As a result, the Israelis brought the value of pluralism to their home communities in the form of a nondenominational “traveling” beit midrash (offering study with educators invited in by the Peoplehood participants).
The visit to Odessa confirmed the impressions they had received in New Jersey.
As Sagit Zitoun of Moshav Maslul (near Merchavim) put it in an e-mail exchange with NJJN, “I am Modern Orthodox and I went to the Conservative synagogue in MetroWest NJ and to a Reform synagogue in Odessa, and I felt for the first time how important it is to be pluralistic. Jewish life must go on in every form and way, and to keep that we need to be open-minded and not judgmental.
“The people I saw in the Reform synagogue in Odessa,” said Zitoun, “do everything to preserve what was kept from their memories of being Jewish and want to continue it in a way that they feel they are able to.”
For their part, the NJ participants were struck by what they didn’t know about day-to-day life in Israel — mostly from visiting Israel not as tourists or students but with their Peoplehood counterparts. As a result, said Randi Brokman, Israel and Overseas associate for MetroWest who oversees the project, they created the “Peoplehood Ambassadors Program,” through which they are speaking at local synagogues to share their insights about Israeli life and “the great need to strengthen am Yisrael.”
The idea of a final project in Odessa was totally unexpected, but welcomed across the board. (Participants were asked to pay an additional fee, since the trip was not originally in the budget.)
“We wanted to follow the precept, ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh’ — ‘All of Israel is responsible for one another,’” explained participant Stephanie Bonder of West Caldwell.
“We were thrilled they decided to do something with such a lasting impact,” said Lisser.
For more information or to apply for participation in the next Peoplehood Project cohort, contact Randi Brokman, Israel and Overseas Associate, at 973-929-3047 or firstname.lastname@example.org.