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Teens foster ‘living bridge’ through mitzva projects
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Teens foster ‘living bridge’ through mitzva projects

Ariel, rear, left, and Josh, bottom row, center, take part in painting the door to the yoga therapy room at the Hagiva School, with their friends in Ofakim.
Ariel, rear, left, and Josh, bottom row, center, take part in painting the door to the yoga therapy room at the Hagiva School, with their friends in Ofakim.

Community service projects centered on yoga and soccer resulted in lasting friendships in Ofakim, Israel, for two local teens and mitzvot for the Negev town’s residents.

Ariel Gurland, the son of Leslie and James Gurland of West Caldwell, and Josh Lubetkin, the son of Debbie and Jay Lubetkin of North Caldwell, both became bar mitzva at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, Ariel in September 2015, Josh last May. 

Yoga Connections — a Living Bridge program of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Partnership2Gether — was founded in 2009 with two goals: to bring yoga as a coping tool to the partnership community of Ofakim and to act as a “living bridge” between Americans in the Greater MetroWest community and Israelis in the Negev town. 

Through the program, yoga teachers from the GMW community regularly travel to Ofakim to teach yoga skills to children, the elderly, women’s groups, teens at risk, and soldiers. 

In 2014, with the help of Kim Ellner, a Kripalu Center-trained and certified teacher and a Yoga Connections volunteer, the center offered scholarships to Olga Shkliaryk and Liat Tangi — two Israeli schoolteachers from Ofakim — to come to the United States for four weeks and train to become certified yoga instructors.

Before heading back to Israel, the two spent Shabbat at the Gurlands’ West Caldwell home; both of Ariel’s parents are community leaders, and Leslie is one of the founders of Yoga Connections.

After the visit, Ariel told his parents that he had learned from the visiting teachers that there was no yoga studio in Ofakim — and that he wanted to help make it happen.

The Gurlands contacted federation’s P2G staff, and the decision was made to convert a bomb shelter at the Hagiva School (where Shkliaryk taught) into a yoga therapy room. To get things moving, Ariel decided that for his mitzva project, he would raise money for the yoga center. After consulting with Greater MetroWest, he set his goal at $7,000, to be matched by GMW. 

Ariel raised the majority of funds via an e-mail campaign to friends and family. He also posted it on Facebook, did face-to-face solicitations, and held a fund-raiser at Agudath Israel in May 2015, where he informed his fellow religious school students about the potential benefits of a yoga center in Ofakim. 

At the event, Debbie Lubetkin — a Yoga Connections volunteer teacher — led a class similar to those she leads in Israel. All of the children created pictures of “hope,” which were made into collage posters to decorate the yoga room in Ofakim.

In the end, Ariel raised $10,000. The extra money is being used to create another yoga center at Ben Gurion School in Ofakim.

Last summer, the Gurlands and Lubetkins traveled to Israel and participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Hagiva yoga room; it was, said Ariel, “one of the coolest experiences I ever had.” 

During that visit, Ofakim got another boost; with the help of friends and the federation, Josh arranged a soccer game for about 25 boys his age from the town. After an evening of pizza and play on a cement basketball court, Josh observed that the kids needed a “real field” and decided to help build it for his mitzva project. He hosted a fund-raising event last March in North Caldwell, replicating the soccer program in Ofakim and educating local kids about his new friends in the Negev town. So far, Josh has raised over $6,000 and plans are in the works to have a field built in 2016 at Ofakim’s Abir Yaakov School. 

Randi Brokman, a federation Global Connections associate, said Yoga Connections “has had an increasing positive impact on the Ofakim community. The Israeli participants report on the calming effect yoga has had on children and children-at-risk. From one idea, so many are touched and the benefits continue to flourish.”

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