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Shifting P2K focus benefits both sides
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Shifting P2K focus benefits both sides

Volunteer exchanges, student programs help secure bonds

Federation executive Amy Cooper, rear, joins Living Bridge volunteers Clair Bisgay, left, and Marjorie Cohen, in telling JCC counselor Danny Nieto last year about their experience working in Israel. Photo by Elaine Durbach
Federation executive Amy Cooper, rear, joins Living Bridge volunteers Clair Bisgay, left, and Marjorie Cohen, in telling JCC counselor Danny Nieto last year about their experience working in Israel. Photo by Elaine Durbach

American Jews used to take for granted that efforts to help Israelis were a one-way street. That’s changing, and the Partnership 2000 program that links the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and a cluster of other local federations with the Negev communities of Arad and Tamar is at the forefront of the shift.

The Central federation contributes around $150,000 a year to the P2K program. Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president and director of financial resource development, said, “Traditionally, we funded social services like education and welfare programs, and we’ve done tremendous work in that regard, in Arad especially. Two years ago — in line with our emphasis on developing Jewish ‘peoplehood’ — we decided to change our focus, to benefit both sides, and that is what we’re working on now.”

One of the first such programs has won an award for excellence from the Jewish Agency for Israel. It is the Eco Connection, a program run by Sviva Israel, which has linked six schools in Israel with six in the United States.

Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth is a participant. It was paired up with Ulpana, a religious girls’ school in Arad. The students learned together about their ecological footprints in a Jewish context, and compared notes on environmental problems and solutions. For example, Cooper said, the Israelis turned out to be more conscious of avoiding waste; in the United States there is more emphasis on recycling.

The Gesher program is another idea that links teens — 12 in JCCs in New Jersey, and 12 from a community center in Arad — via video and Skype. The first year, they are just getting to know each other through the virtual path; in the second year, the American teens are scheduled to go to Israel; in the third, the Israelis will come to New Jerseys.

Cooper also cited the “Living Bridge” program, which she has been coordinating for the P2K cluster. Kefiada, the youth program, placed eight young people from New Jersey this year as counselors in summer camps in Israel. They included Yossi Mason from Elizabeth, who worked at an English-language camp alongside fellow volunteers from a range of Jewish backgrounds.

Adult volunteers have been going over too. Cooper said the apartment that the P2K cluster maintains in Arad has been in almost constant use over the past year. While the volunteers pay for their airfares and food, they can stay there for free while they teach at local schools or work in social service organizations.

Most who go return so enthusiastic, they inspire others to follow their example, and many choose to go again. Anita Kolat of Elizabeth and Marge Cohen of Plainfield, both teachers, decided to return this year to repeat the experience. Central federation activist Jon Ulanet of Fanwood was inspired by what he heard to go for his first experience as a Living Bridge volunteer.

“Every month I hear from someone else wanting to know about the volunteering opportunities,” Cooper said.

She said that as Israelis become more affluent, philanthropy there is gaining ground. The P2K leadership in Israel dramatically illustrates the shift: The new lay leader is hotel executive Nechemia Ben Porat, a major donor to the P2K undertakings. Cooper said that as he has engaged with the Americans in developing new programs, the dynamic has been gratifying and energizing.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the two-way connection is the host family relationships that have sprung up on both sides. Israelis visiting New Jersey have been welcomed by the warmth shown them by local families; Americans going to Israel have reported back with equal delight about the wonderful hospitality from families they met through the P2K coordinators.

Not all undertakings have this two-way benefit but still serve the core purpose of strengthening bonds, Cooper said. For example, the cluster allocated $65,000 to a program for gifted students at Arad College. “The program couldn’t continue without additional funding, and it was very important to them,” she explained. “We listened, and we said that if we’re friends and this is a priority for them, we can be flexible.”

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