KIBBUTZ HANNATON, Israel — Like many non-Orthodox institutions in Israel, Kibbutz Hannaton is trying to build a bridge between Israel’s secular Jews and a religious tradition they often view with distrust.
Affiliated with the Masorti, or Conservative, movement, the once-declining kibbutz is re-establishing itself as a resource for Israelis who share the movement’s commitment to religious pluralism.
“We’re trying to create a model of communal life that is not existing in Israel today,” said the kibbutz’s boyish rabbi, Yoav Ende, as he pointed out its pastel-colored homes, cow barns, synagogue and mikva, and the educational center/spiritual retreat that he directs.
When leaders of the Jewish federations of MetroWest and Central New Jersey visited Hannaton earlier this month, their goal was to create bridges of their own — as well as a communal model that doesn’t exist but that has a deadline: July 1, when the two federations aim to complete a merger.
During their March 16-22 Israel Center Experience trip, leaders of both federations visited their respective Israel projects, from the Galilee, where MetroWest supports Hannaton’s educational center and bar/bat mitzva programs, to the Negev, where Central provides seed money for entrepreneurs.
The Central projects visited included those established through the federation’s Mack Ness Fund — whose aim is to strengthen the young adult population in the Negev and recruit others to settle there — and its Partnership 2Gether and other programs supported by the annual campaign.
The joint visits were a chance for federation leaders and volunteers to get to know one another better, as well as to explore the ways their funding priorities in Israel line up and diverge.
The trip was intended in part to demonstrate “how to combine the cultures,” said Amir Shacham, who directs the Israel office of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. “The people are similar, although the cultures of the two federations are different,” he said. “We’re looking for input into how to put two into one.”
“I think we are one and the same in our commitment to and passion for Israel,” said Bob Kuchner, a past president of the Jewish Federation of Central NJ and the incoming Israel & Overseas chair of the combined federations. “I think this week will demonstrate not only that we care about the same things, but that we are committed to making them grow.”
The 39 participants included a mix of longtime leaders and newer volunteers, drawn from both federations. The organizations’ two presidents, Lori Klinghoffer of MetroWest and Julie Lipsett-Singer of Central, took part, as did their top executives, Stanley Stone of Central and Max Kleinman of MetroWest.
On the trip’s northern swing, the delegation visited, in addition to Hannaton, Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, where MetroWest supports an outreach program aimed at participants of neighboring moshavim and kibbutzim. In the Druze village of Horfesh, they observed women involved in an empowerment project funded by MetroWest and a “Youth Futures” program for at-risk children. The program was seeded with initial major funding by Central and receives support from MetroWest.
Down south the delegates visited Central projects in the Be’er Sheva and Arad regions, focusing especially on the work of the Ness Fund — Central’s incubator for supporting small businesses and startups in a region still struggling for a financial footing.
The group visited about 20 projects or communities in all.
At times the visits demonstrated what each federation feels it does best. For MetroWest, that means “people-to-people” projects, according to Shacham, in which the federation builds relationships between individual Israelis and supporters back in New Jersey.
“The programs we support are hand-grown in Israel. We’re not dictating an agenda but supporting the goals of the people here,” said Ava Kleinman, chair of MetroWest’s Israel & Overseas committee and chair of the ICE trip. “Israel can’t exist without the support of the world’s Jews, and the soul of American Jewry can’t exist without Israel.”
A signature of Central’s activities in Israel has been supporting the work of existing NGOs and municipalities in the south. Through efforts like the Ness Fund and its longstanding partnership with the Arad/Tamar region, the federation hopes to spur economic development in the Negev.
What both federations share is a commitment to pluralism projects and a generous split between the amount of money they allocate for domestic causes and for projects in Israel. 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.
As a result, Stone said he is confident that when it comes time for the merged federations to support one another’s projects, “We hope to keep everything going and, where possible, to expand.”
Although there was time set aside during the ICE trip for the business of philanthropy — including merger discussions and a board meeting for the Ness Fund — the emphasis was on fact-finding and bonding. On March 19, participants, faculty, and students celebrated the 20th anniversary of MetroWest High School in Ra’anana, a secular school that has made religious pluralism and tolerance a priority. On the first Friday of the trip, the mission members had Shabbat dinner with more than 200 young people involved with the Jerusalem Challenge, a regular outreach event supported by the Central federation at the community center in Jerusalem’s German Colony.
And if there were any questions that the two federations would not get along, it was settled the second night of their stay, at a celebration held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation in Jerusalem. The guest list included shlihim and rishonim — young Israelis who have spent time in the MetroWest and Central communities as emissaries, counselors, and educators. As members of a Scouts Caravan performed Israeli standards, the ICE participants linked hands and snaked around the dance floor.
“We feel the experience of supporting Israel is not really about projects and hasbara but in building bridges between people,” said Shacham during the dinner. “Those relationships are much more important to what we are trying to achieve.”