Rivka Weiner of Elizabeth has been to Israel many times, but, she said, some of her most cherished experiences there came from the two trips she took with mostly first-time visitors as new to Judaism as they were to the country.
Weiner, who is Orthodox, is studying part-time to get her master’s degree at Rutgers University’s School of Social Work. (She is also executive assistant for the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations and a former NJ Jewish News reporter.) In January 2010 and now again this winter, she traveled to Israel as a research assistant with her professor, Dr. Patricia Findley, and fellow research assistants, almost all of them Christian, on an educational exchange program.
Members of the Jewish community have described the trips as a valuable antidote to the growing anti-Israel sentiment voiced at the university over the past couple of years. Weiner said they have provided her with a greater sense of comfort and openness, knowing how positive the experience was for the others.
With some fluency in Hebrew and her familiarity with the country, Weiner was able to act “as a kind of ambassador” — smoothing the way wherever she could while witnessing her traveling companions’ delight in the people and places of Israel.
“The first time felt like the gift of a lifetime; getting to do it again was like catching lightning in a bottle — twice,” she told NJ Jewish News Jan. 20.
The idea for the Rutgers exchange came from Prof. Richard Isralowitz, a NJ native and Rutgers graduate now teaching at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. He spent some time at his alma mater as a visiting professor at the School of Social Work a few years ago, and proposed that a contingent from there come to Israel for a mutual learning experience with his students.
Supporting the collaboration are members of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 NJ/Delaware cluster that is allied with the Israeli communities of Arad and Tamar. The P2K agencies include the Jewish Federation of Middlesex County, which took a leading role, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and Jewish Federation of Monmouth County. P2K provided financial help and liaisons with Israeli authorities and agencies.
The first group from Rutgers went in 2007; others followed over the next few years. In Israel, the Rutgers people have teamed up with Isralowitz and his students and colleagues, sharing insights and strategies on care for the elderly and disabled. They also looked into issues like substance abuse and health care in a community with a large low-income immigrant population.
Having been part of the effort “that is really bringing benefits to people in Arad,” said Weiner, “has been really wonderful.”
Part of that effort has been the Vision Project, which provides eyeglasses to about 80 elderly people in Arad. The project came about last year after the Rutgers and Ben-Gurion people interviewed seniors attending Beit Gilad, a day care center supported by P2K, and found that many were struggling with poor sight but couldn’t afford classes.
Seeing them a year later on this latest trip, with their donated glasses and eye care provided through a mobile clinic run by Ben-Gurion, Findley said, they saw the results for themselves. With improved vision, the old people’s self-esteem and confidence had improved.
Findley has now been to Israel four times; a fifth trip is in the works. She said the experiences in Israel have been extraordinarily enriching. “I never thought of going to Israel,” she told NJJN, “[but] it has turned out to be such a blessing, and such a broadening experience.
“Everybody has been so friendly. People were inviting us to come home for Shabbat…. I just loved it.”
With the Rutgers team on this latest trip were Amy Cooper, the Central federation’s associate executive vice president and its director of financial resource development, and Marilyn and Gerry Flanzbaum, both former federation presidents who now live in Israel and are members of the P2K team.
Cooper said that over the past 12 years, P2K has moved from a more one-sided approach to developing its “Living Bridge” concept, with an emphasis on including “value added” for both sides. While providing traditional social service, this joint effort has achieved just that, she said — in giving the Rutgers staff members and students a personal experience of Israel that Findley and Weiner said they will share with others on campus, while also sharing their skills with clients and colleagues in Israel.