ARAD, Israel — As their chartered bus weaved through the streets of Arad, visitors from New Jersey and Delaware marveled at the growth of the once barren Negev city.
“I don’t remember those fire trucks, the youth center, and at least half of these apartment buildings being here on our last visit,” observed Bob Kuchner of Westfield, the Israel & Overseas chair for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Kuchner has been part of the Jewish Agency for Israel Partnership2Gether program that has paired a cluster of Jewish federations in New Jersey and Delaware with Arad and the Tamar region, “since its inception.” Visiting Arad, he said, “it’s great to see the fulfillment of a vision we had a long time ago. We’ve worked closely over the years with the mayors and have really seen the city grow.”
From Oct. 25 to Nov. 2, 29 people from the Jewish federations of Greater MetroWest, Delaware, and Atlantic/Cape May Counties were members of the Arad 50th Anniversary Mission to see the fruits of their efforts.
NJJN met with the mission, including 17 representatives of Greater MetroWest, in Arad on Oct. 30, when the group celebrated the municipality’s 50th anniversary with a full-day tour.
The itinerary included a dedication of a new playground whose construction was supported by the consortium, a meeting with the past and present mayors, a discussion with famed novelist and Arad resident Amos Oz, and a tour of a historical museum and artists’ studios.
Established in 1962 as Israel’s first planned city, Arad’s population has almost doubled within the last 15 years to 27,000.
The partnership was launched 15 years ago with eight federations that included the former Jewish Federation of Central NJ. The P2G cluster contributes up to $400,000 a year for projects in Arad-Tamar.
The contribution this past year of the Greater MetroWest federation — formed from the merger of the former Central and MetroWest federations — was $150,000.
The hands-on involvement with Arad and its people through P2G makes supporting the effort much more meaningful than merely writing a check, said the consortium’s American chair, Sivia Braunstein, of the Atlantic/Cape May Counties federation. “You become not a fund-raiser but a partner. You are part of a relationship that includes friendships, dinners, e-mails, funerals, births, meeting the grandchildren.”
P2G fosters personal connections through programs that bring young Israelis to the States after army service to work as camp counselors and has American college students teaching English at Israeli summer camps.
The mission marked the 35th trip to Israel for Leonard and Freida Posnock of Monroe Township. “We have left a legacy to our children and grandchildren that they understand what it means to be Jewish and take responsibility,” said Leonard Posnock. “There is no greater mitzva than having your grandchildren involved in Jewish philanthropy.”
Posnock, who retired from his kosher meat business two weeks prior to the mission, spearheaded efforts to secure an additional $50,000 in pledges from mission participants and others connected to the partnership. “I want us all to leave Arad today and make sure the mayor understands they can start shoveling ground and buying new soil,” he told the group.
Posnock prompted a wave of applause for his comments during a panel discussion that included Arad’s Mayor Tali Ploskov and former Mayor Bezalel Tabib. “This is a community that stands with Israel no matter what,” Posnock said. “Whenever there’s a problem you can count on each and every one of us to come forward. We reached our first plateau, and we are going all the way.”
The panel took place at the Schaller Medical Center, which the partnership helped establish in 2003. Nili Avrahamy, partnership director of the Jewish Agency based in Arad, spoke about the center’s critical needs.
“My father died of a massive heart attack while visiting me in Arad in 1990,” she told the group. “There was no intensive care ambulance in Arad at that time. If there would have been an ER center here, like there is today, his life might have been saved.”
Ploskov spoke about the growth of local industry, in particular a new billion-shekel yearly contract with Elbit Systems Ltd., an international defense electronics company that opened a facility in Arad two months ago. The company intends to recruit 150 employees, Avrahamy told NJJN.
Elbit joins other leading industries in Arad, which include Telma, Arad Towels, Sea of Life, Sea of Spa, and Kodkod, which produces the game Rummikub.
The Elbit contract was thrilling news for Stanley Stone, executive director of the Greater MetroWest federation and, as executive vice president of the former Central NJ federation, founding coordinator of the P2G partnership. A year ago while the mayor visited the Greater MetroWest federation, Stone said, she had mentioned that discussions were under way with the company.
Development of regions outside the flourishing center of Israel is exactly what the Jewish Agency had in mind when they established partnerships with communities like Arad, Stone said.
“The money our consortium raises makes a huge impact in Arad,” said Amy Cooper, American coordinator of the consortium and director of the GMW federation’s regional operations. “The mission provides a perfect opportunity to not only witness that impact, but make meaningful connections with people here.”
Connections to Israel ran so deep for Gerry and Marilyn Flanzbaum of Warren that the couple made aliya in 2006 to Givat Olga in the center of the country, where they spend seven months of the year. Both are past presidents of Jewish Federation of Central NJ and founding chairs of the P2G partnership. “We wanted to do what we could to help Arad achieve its original dream. I think it has the capacity to have the future that was envisioned,” Marilyn said.
Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, a member of GMW federation’s board of directors, said Israel is her passion. “It’s the center and future of Jewish life. I’ve been here three times this year and have seen a lot of growth.”
This trip was particularly special, she said, “because of anxiety about Superstorm Sandy. With the hurricane bearing down on the Northeast, Americans who organized to assist under-privileged Israelis found themselves on the receiving end of sympathy and hope for their situations back home.”
Overall mission chairs Miriam and Larry Hirsch of Cape May have visited Israel 20 times. “The news in America makes traveling to Israel seem dangerous, and it makes living in Israel seem impossible. Traveling here often is one way to make people realize how safe it is,” Miriam said.
“The first time I came to Arad was in 1983 when it wasn’t much more than a rest stop on the way to Eilat,” Larry said. “It’s very encouraging to see such growth in the areas of industry, technology, and education.”
Oz met with the mission in one of the town’s artists’ studios, where he spoke about diversity, dreams, and his new book, Jews and Words, which is scheduled to be published next month by Yale University Press.
“Life in Arad has been a great school for me. We have 36 countries of origin represented here, more than some U.S. cities can claim. This provides for a very meaningful life,” Oz said.
Israeli diversity contributes to a very difficult climate for politics, the author said. “You can’t get two Israelis to agree with each other. It’s difficult to get one Israeli to agree with himself,” he quipped. “But this is a wonderful climate for creativity. Israel is undergoing a magnificent cultural Golden Age, in music, theater, literature, sciences, and high tech.
“It’s rapidly evolving into a super power.”