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Summer exchange
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Summer exchange

A burst of programs promotes ties between Israel and New Jersey

The Birthright group from Greater MetroWest takes in the view at Mitzpe Ramon during their 10-day tour of the country.
The Birthright group from Greater MetroWest takes in the view at Mitzpe Ramon during their 10-day tour of the country.

Alot of traffic has been crossing the “Living Bridge” between the Greater MetroWest community in New Jersey and Israel this summer, and more than ever, it has been two-way.

Hundreds of local participants took part in a range of programs in various Israeli communities partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, from young adults exploring Israel’s economic potential in the Negev to teens combining tourism with visits to Israeli nonprofits (see page 13).

Meanwhile, more Israelis than ever came to Greater MetroWest.

The numbers have been boosted by the merger last summer of the MetroWest and Central New Jersey federations, and, according to Amir Shacham, the executive shaliah with the GMW Legow Family Israel Program Center, the community’s growing stature.

“I want to be modest, but we are now one of the leading North American communities in running Israel programs, and possibly the leading one in the South, in the Negev,” said Shacham. “We have been able to leverage our connections, and more and more people want to partner with us. And the connection is working in both directions, with real reciprocity.”

Reciprocity has become pivotal in the relationship, turning what used to be a one-way dynamic — with Americans aiding Israelis — into a matter of mutual benefit. That has been the goal of Partnership2Gether, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s program linking North American and Israeli communities in a series of twinning activities and ongoing relationships.

To sustain those relationships, the federation this year will host the largest corps of Israeli shlihim — emissaries who come to educate local people about all facets of Israeli life — in North America. The eight shlihim arrived earlier this month (see related story).

Greater MetroWest arranged for 150 young people to go on Birthright, the wildly popular program that offers free Israel trips to college students and recent graduates. But it also sponsored exchange programs that brought Israelis here. One such program, Hoops Connection, has over the past few years sent youngsters to Israel to coach basketball together with Israeli counterparts. This year for the first time, the program started in New Jersey, with two Israelis coming here to work alongside four local teens, before they all returned to coach kids in the development town of Ofakim, joined by two more Israelis.

And while American volunteers are familiar with goodwill missions to Israel, this year featured an opportunity for Israelis to lend a hand in the United States. The Bonim Beyachad (Building Together) program brought 10 Israelis from Ofakim, Merchavim, Arad, and Erez to New Jersey’s Union Beach, where alongside 10 American volunteers they helped rebuild a house on the Sandy-ravaged Raritan Bay.

While funding remains a challenge in the current economy, Shacham said that Greater MetroWest has been able to fulfill its obligations to its various partner communities. The federation works with the Jewish Agency for Israel and has benefitted from increased collaboration with the Israeli government, which has made a priority of fostering Diaspora relations.

Two new partnerships are taking shape, he said. One is with the World Zionist Organization, which will be working with community youth shliha Rozi Ben Ami, helping expand her role with additional funding and program material.

The other is IsraelExperts, an educational tour operator.

“What pleases me particularly is that so many people want to take part in our programs,” Shacham said. “But we want more.”

 

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