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For children of Russian immigrants, mainstream Jewish community remains elusive

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Participants at the Feb. 12-14 Mitbachon weekend in San Rafael, Calif., explored their Jewish identities using theater and other creative arts. Rozana Saveliev/Jewish Agency

Alex Varum was 8 years old when he left Russia. Now 35 and a real estate developer in Silicon Valley, Varum grew up in California, speaks English like a native — much better than Russian — and feels American in every way.

So why would he spend an entire weekend exploring Jewish identity with a group of other young Jews from the former Soviet Union, many of whose personal ties to the Old Country are as negligible as his own?

“I feel somehow that I don’t belong to the American Jewish community,” he says. “I don’t feel Russian — I’m American. But I don’t identify as an American Jew.”

That’s the reality of the Russian-speaking Jewish population in the United States.

More than half-a-million strong, scattered in hundreds of cities and towns from New York to Seattle, it spans a range of religious observance, income levels, and career choice.

But even those who came as young children and barely speak Russian feel a bond with their landsmen that sets them apart from what they still perceive as a monolithic, powerful, and elusive American Jewish community.

“Our concept of Jewish peoplehood is more ethnic than religious,” says Mark Khmelnitsky, 30, a lawyer who has been in this country since he was 16. “With American Jews it’s much more about what you do than what you are. I know I’m Jewish — now what do I do about it?”

That question is what brought Varum, Khmelnitsky, and 80 other young professionals from New York and the San Francisco Bay area to Mitbachon, a weekend leadership and identity-building seminar for Russian-speaking Jews held last month in San Rafael, 30 miles north of San Francisco.

Five years ago the Jewish Agency for Israel began reaching out to this second generation, sending young Russian-speaking emissaries from Israel to New York, Toronto, and San Francisco — cities with large, young, Russian-speaking Jewish populations — to help them find bridges to the larger community.

It’s a tough challenge, acknowledges Anna Vainer, one of three New York emissaries and a co-organizer of the Mitbachon weekend.

“There are very few bridges to reach this population,” she says. “Not synagogue, not camps, not Jewish schools.”

Even those who grew up in the United States talk about “American Jews” as something apart from themselves.

“The ‘booze and schmooze’ model that is popular with young American Jews doesn’t reach them,” Vainer says.

Her colleague Alexandra Belinski, Jewish Agency emissary in San Francisco, agrees: “There is something in the Russian mentality that wants to go deeper. They’re ‘Russian from the inside,’ even those who don’t speak Russian well.”

All weekend, the conversation veered back and forth between the two languages, with occasional snatches of Hebrew. In one session, participants were asked to describe themselves — young Russian Jews — versus American Jews of the same age.

The words on the “Russian Jewish” list showed pride in their cultural heritage — “intelligentsia,” “smarties,” “ambition,” “loves Pushkin” — combined with embarrassment at their immigrant status: “fresh off the boat,” “xenophobic,” “lost,” “strong accent.”

Their view of their American-born peers was similarly mixed: Envy was reflected in descriptors such as “synagogue,” “went to Hebrew school,” “Hillel,” “making donations,” and “part of the community,” mixed with disdain conveyed by terms such as “privileged” and “naive.”

“The Americans have the privilege of going off to do what their hearts desire, but we are immigrants, we don’t have that luxury,” said one young San Francisco woman. “We become engineers, doctors, lawyers.”

Many in this group juggle two, three, even four identities, and just as many passports. Nearly one-third have lived in Israel, and most have family there. Some still have family in the former Soviet Union.

This gives them a deep attachment to Israel, a personal history with anti-Semitism, and the shared immigrant experience of living between worlds.

“In a way, we’re homeless,” says Khmelnitsky, who recently moved from New York to San Francisco. “I don’t feel very American. Israel is the place where I could have ended up, and might still end up, so I have a very positive view of it.

“American Jews are already home. They can stand to the side and criticize.”

Few of the second-generation group hold leadership positions in Jewish organizations, even though many of those raised in America attended religious school, even Jewish day schools.

“In New York, none of this population has taken a real leadership role yet,” Vainer says.

That’s not because they disdain the organized Jewish community — quite the opposite. It’s that they can’t find their way in, or don’t feel they need to participate.

One goal of the weekend seminar was to change that perspective.

Lev Weisfeiler, who immigrated to the United States at 22, says he’s never been part of a Jewish community and belongs to no Jewish organizations.

“As a Russian Jew, you didn’t have to show external symbols of your belonging; it was obvious,” he said.

Now that his daughter is 13, however, he wants to develop tools to articulate his Jewish identity so he can pass it on to her.

Finding their way into the community doesn’t mean the Russian immigrants don’t have a deep sense of who they are and where they come from.

The notion of “discovering” their Jewish identity seems foreign to many of them, even laughable. They’re Jewish because they’re Jewish, they say — what eludes them, for the most part, is Judaism.

Those who do become involved in Jewish organizations often turn to those with which they are familiar, particularly groups that work with their own Russian-speaking community.

At the Feb. 6 Emigre Community Gala in San Francisco for Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which resettled the city’s 45,000 recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, more than 70 of the bejeweled attendees — one-fifth of the crowd — were younger than 35.

Not only were they enjoying the caviar and dancing the hora with their elders, they were helping to raise funds for the organization and making their own donations.

“My grandmother goes to the L’Chaim Center,” says Yelena Frid, 26, co-chair of the event’s young adult leadership committee and a native of Odessa, referring to a drop-in center for Russian-speaking seniors. “These people took time from their life to make my life better, and it’s our job to give back.”

The young people at the Mitbachon weekend, and at the JFCS gala, don’t know if their children will speak Russian or their grandchildren will appreciate Pushkin. But just because they feel apart from the mainstream American Jewish community doesn’t mean they aren’t flexing their muscle and looking to build something of their own.

“There’s a whole base of us, a community that speaks the same language and has a specific way of being,” says Veronica Price, 32, of New York. “We are a community, and a relatively strong one, and we can teach other communities how to find their identity.”

JTA

 
 

Birthright foundation announces new matching grant

imageMiriam and Sheldon Adelson take part in an Aug. 12, 2009, event in Jerusalem with Birthright Israel participants. Courtesy of Birthright Israel Foundation

A new matching grant program by the Birthright Israel Foundation will provide a dollar-for-dollar match on any increase in donations to the foundation based on 2008 gifts.

That means if a donor gave $100 in 2008 and gives $120 in 2010, the foundation would match the $20 increase.

Private philanthropists, the Jewish federation system, the Jewish Agency, and the government of Israel fund the Birthright program. The foundation oversees the private money given to the program, which makes up the vast majority of the Birthright budget.

The foundation has up to $20 million to use for the matching grants, which are being funded by a $10 million gift from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and another $10 million from a small group of other donors.

The Adelson money is the second installment of a $30 million pledge he made in 2008.

According to Birthright, the foundation is in the middle of a huge push to broaden its donor base.

In 2008, the foundation had 2,823 donors. The number nearly tripled to 8,370 in 2009 as it rolled out a national grass-roots campaign. The foundation aims to have 50,000 donors by 2015.

The matching grant program came out of a late January summit of 49 major donors held by the foundation in Las Vegas and hosted by Adelson, although he was not in attendance.

Of the 49, only three of the 15 original private funders who helped launch Birthright — Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, and Lynn Schusterman — were present in Las Vegas, according to the foundation’s CEO, Bob Aronson.

Among the 15 original donors, only eight are still giving to Birthright. The rest have dropped off either because of changed economic circumstances or philanthropic focus, or death.

This trend, Aronson said, highlights the need to build a much broader donor base.

According to Aronson, funding for the trips has held steady. In 2008, the foundation raised $55 million to $56 million, and in 2009 it brought in $57 million — even as the mega-gift from Adelson dropped by $10 million.

Fund raising, when subtracting Adelson’s mammoth gift, rose from $26 million to $37 million.

By 2015, Aronson wants to be raising some $49 million per year without Adelson money. Anything Adelson would pledge at that point would be gravy.

JTA

This article was adapted from JTA’s philanthropy blog, TheFundermentalist.com.

 
 

Israel OKs another 8,000 Ethiopian immigrants — but these may be the last

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This family in the Gojam region of Ethiopia, pictured in 2005, comes from an area where there may be additional Falash Mura who were excluded from the Nov. 14 Israeli government decision to bring up to another 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel. Uriel Heilman

The decision this week by Israel’s cabinet to bring as many as 8,000 additional Ethiopians to Israel over the next four years and then close the door on mass Ethiopian aliyah has a familiar ring to it.

That’s because it has happened several times before.

In 1991, 1998, and 2008, Israel declared an end to mass Ethiopian immigration, only to reopen the gates after intense lobbying and pressure by advocates for Ethiopian aliyah.

On Sunday, again after dogged lobbying by advocates — including a former president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ; a former Israeli Supreme Court justice; Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi; a former Canadian justice minister; and myriad other figures inside and outside the Israeli government — the Israeli cabinet again voted to expand Ethiopian aliyah.

This time, however, it will be different, promised one of the main advocates for the aliyah, Joseph Feit, the former president of NACOEJ. His New York-based organization advocates for Ethiopian aliyah and runs aid compounds in the Ethiopian city of Gondar that provide some food, schooling, and jobs to the would-be immigrants to Israel.

“Everybody’s working in cooperative mode,” Feit said in an interview from Israel a day after the Israeli cabinet voted to expand by as many as 7,846 the number of additional Ethiopians who will be allowed to immigrate to Israel under special criteria established for the so-called Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, but who now are returning to Jewish practice.

What’s different this time, Feit said, is that NACOEJ has agreed to withdraw from Ethiopia and cease all aliyah advocacy if the additional Ethiopians are brought to Israel in accordance with the government decision at the rate of 200 per month.

Under the agreement, NACOEJ will turn over operation of its aid compounds in Ethiopia to the Jewish Agency for Israel three months after the aliyah begins, and NACOEJ will end all its activity in Ethiopia and aliyah advocacy once those among the 8,000 who meet Israel’s criteria for aliyah are brought to the Jewish state.

It’s not the first time such an agreement has been reached. An identical deal was proposed in 2003 and signed in 2005, and since then thousands of Ethiopians have been brought to Israel and been made citizens.

NACOEJ did not cease its aliyah advocacy, however; Feit said it was because the 2005 agreement was never implemented. He said the Jewish Agency never took over the aid compounds, and the Israeli government dragged its feet on bringing the Ethiopians, stretching out the aliyah for years in fits and starts.

In addition, Feit said, several thousand Ethiopians who were supposed to be considered for aliyah were never included in the immigration. Adjusting for natural growth, those are the 8,000 or so Ethiopians in Gondar seeking to make aliyah, he said.

“The numbers have not changed,” Feit said. “These are the people left over after artificial caps.”

But a former Jewish Agency official who headed aliyah operations in Ethiopia for four years disputes that notion. Ori Konforti said the numbers are constantly changing in a ruse to keep Ethiopian aliyah going as long as possible.

Rather than capping Ethiopian aliyah, the government’s decision this week actually sets a dangerous precedent by potentially opening the doors to even more Ethiopian immigration because it dramatically eases the criteria Ethiopian petitioners must meet to qualify for Israeli citizenship, Konforti said.

For the first time, an Israeli government will be allowing Ethiopians to apply for aliyah who were not counted in the Efrati Census of 1999 — a tally of would-be Ethiopian immigrants carried out by a former director of Israel’s Population Registry, David Efrati.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” Konforti said. “Half of Ethiopia has relatives in Israel.”

Until now, any Ethiopian seeking to immigrate under the special criteria for Falash Mura had to be on the Efrati list. Now, however, Ethiopian petitioners who were not on the list but have Jewish lineage on their mother’s side will qualify for aliyah.

Rabbi Menachem Waldman, director of the Shvut Am Institute, which is involved with Ethiopian aliyah and preparing the immigrants for conversion to Judaism, said that in all likelihood no more than 6,500 additional Ethiopians will come to Israel as a result of this week’s decision. That number represents those who qualify for aliyah but were not counted on the Efrati Census because they were in rural villages where the census tally was imprecise.

“We said all these years that there were a certain number that were not in the census,” Waldman told JTA.

He estimated the number of Falash Mura villagers who were not counted by the Efrati Census at about 5,000. The figure of 8,000, he said, includes those villagers who migrated to Gondar between 2003 and 2007 and people from the Efrati Census whom the Israeli government mistakenly failed to verify for aliyah eligibility, plus natural growth due to births and marriages.

“With this decision, I think the government went to the maximum,” Efrati, who conducted the original census, told JTA this week. The 8,000 figure, he said, was the maximum number agreed upon by Ethiopian families in Israel, public figures, advocacy groups, their American Jewish sponsors, the Israeli government, and the Ethiopian government.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t others in Ethiopia — a country of 88 million whose population believes it is the product of the offspring of an illicit union 3,000 years ago between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — who may be eligible to make aliyah, Waldman acknowledged.

“In the villages, not all the censuses were precise,” Waldman said. “I think there are more in Gojam,” a rural Ethiopian province. “But we took a decision in 2007 that we were closing the list at 8,700 to send a message to the Israeli government that we are advocating to bring only those who abandoned their homes, came to Gondar, and are living as Jews. Someone who lives in his village and goes to church on Sunday morning and merely has Jewish lineage — I never advocated for him.”

Any Ethiopian who can prove eligibility for aliyah under the standards of the Law of Return — practically impossible for the Falash Mura — may immigrate to Israel regardless of this decision.

The question at the heart of the dispute over the aliyah of the Falash Mura is how many remain in Ethiopia, and therefore whether the aliyah will ever end.

Opponents claim the number changes constantly because Ethiopians desperate to escape Africa’s poverty for Israel’s comforts are manipulating the immigration system. Advocates claim the numbers have changed only due to natural growth and to earlier Israeli government mistakes in counting the Ethiopians.

They say a combination of factors will help make sure that this time the Ethiopian aliyah ends for real: the Israeli government and the advocates agreed on a cap; to be eligible, would-petitioners had to have moved to Gondar by 2007, so newcomers cannot be added; the advocates have agreed to cede operations in Ethiopia to the Jewish Agency, which will shut down the aid facilities and school once the eligible petitioners are brought to Israel; and the Ethiopian government does not want mass emigration to continue beyond these agreed-upon 8,000.

“All the parties dealing with this subject for 20 years were active in reaching this consensus,” Waldman said. “The list is closed.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

American Jews plan relief efforts in wake of Israeli blaze

With Israel in desperate need of aid to fight the fire ravaging its north last week, countries from four continents sent help, including those with whom Israel has been at odds lately, such as Turkey.

Now that the fire is out, the question is what will Israel’s close friends, the American Jewish community, do to aid in the recovery process?

Damage estimates are ranging as high as $75 million, and the American Jewish community has opened fund-raising mailboxes, started as emergency campaigns while the blaze was still burning.

The national branches of the three largest U.S. Jewish religious denominations launched fire assistance funds and asked their rabbis to address the topic in their sermons last Shabbat. Dozens of the country’s largest organizations, including the Jewish federation system, the American Jewish Committee, and B’nai B’rith International, also started funds.

The heaviest lifting in the nonprofit world likely will be done by the Jewish National Fund, which since Israel’s founding has been responsible for the forestation of the country.

With some 12,000 acres scorched and an estimated 5 million trees burned, the JNF has launched a $10 million campaign to be split between reforestation and other causes, such as rebuilding tourism in the area. In less than a week, JNF had raised nearly $2 million in cash and pledges. A number of organizations, such as Hadassah, have pledged to help JNF pay for more trees.

Reforesting the area will be a slow process, according to the JNF’s director of forestry for the northern region, Omri Bonneh. For the first year, JNF says it won’t plant any trees, allowing the land to replenish itself.

It’s not clear how much the American Jewish organizations’ total campaign will be; in some cases it’s not yet clear where the money will go.

The American Jewish Committee pledged $100,000 for reforestation, saying it will plant 10,000 trees to commemorate the 42 people — mostly police cadets from the Israeli Prisons Service — killed in the wildfire.

B’nai B’rith International, which by Tuesday had collected $12,000, will use the money to address unmet needs, according to its vice president of programming, Rhonda Love.

Last week, Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, deployed hundreds of medics, paramedics, emergency vehicles, and volunteers to the scene of the fire. Its American fund-raising arm, the American Friends of the Magen David Adom, had raised about $150,000 online since the fire broke out, according to its director of marketing, Robert Kern.

A number of organizations are focusing on helping Yemin Orde, a youth village for immigrants to Israel that was 40 percent destroyed in the fire.

Hadassah is providing space for 500 families dislocated by the fire by opening several youth villages with which it is associated. The Jewish Agency for Israel has made space in its facilities for Yemin Orde to continue operating.

The two overseas arms of the North American federation system have been on the ground since the fire began. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped out in the evacuation of residents and supplied emergency needs such as food and blankets. Now the JDC is planning to provide programs for the disabled, psycho-social support, and emergency preparedness, according to spokesman Michael Geller.

The Jewish Agency brought hundreds of children from the stricken area to Tel Aviv for respite, and planned to bring 4,000 by the end of Chanukah.

JDC and the Jewish Agency also are working on coordinating youth volunteers. In the long term, the fire could provide the Jewish Agency with an opportunity to test the value of a new strategic plan that places more emphasis on creating volunteer opportunities in Israel.

The agency has proposed a plan to focus volunteer mentors on the Druze town of Tirat HaCarmel, a development town near Haifa that was evacuated during the fire. Agency officials also have talked to the Jewish Federations of North America about creating, through the agency’s MASA program, a project to bring diaspora Jews to help in rehabilitating the animal wildlife in Israel’s north, according to Jewish Agency director general Alan Hoffmann. JFNA will be recommending programs to member federations that will assist both Jewish and Arab communities affected by the fires. This will include immediate relief that will address issues of evacuees and respite activities for children and youth, trauma relief, and professional support to professionals and volunteers. Long-term relief efforts are being assessed.

Jewish Agency officials also said they would like to set up a fund for grants to victims of the fire, much like the fund it has for victims of terror that gives out up to $35,000 to individuals and families affected by terrorism.

How much exactly the JDC and Jewish Agency will be able to do in the long run will be determined largely by how much the federations are able to raise for them. That’s not yet clear, though insiders said the federations would probably allocate approximately $2 million.

Their campaign received an early boost when the JUF-Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago immediately pledged $500,000 of its own money for the JDC and Jewish Agency’s fire relief efforts.

The question is whether money will continue to come in now that the fire has been extinguished.

“It is clear that when the fires stop burning, also the flames of philanthropy tend to die down,” Hoffman said. “But there are clear needs that have been created here. The question is how can world Jewry play a part in restoring this place to where it was before, and that will require resources.”

Use any of the links below to donate to a variety of emergency campaigns established in the wake of Israel’s devastating forest fire.

American Friends of the Magen David Adom, Israeli Red Cross: www.afmda.org

America Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: www.jdc.org

American Friends of Yemin Orde: www.yeminorde.org

B’nai B’rith Israel Emergency Fund: www.bnaibrith.org

International Fellowship of Christians and Jews: www.ifcj.org

Jewish Agency for Israel: www.jafi.org

Jewish Federations of North America: www.jewishfederations.org

Jewish National Fund, Forest Fire Emergency Fund: www.jnf.org

JStreet and the New Israel Fund: www.jstreet.org

Organizations of the Conservative/Masorti movement in North America: www.uscj.org

ORT America: www.ortamerica.org

Orthodox Union emergency fund: www.ou.org

Union for Reform Judaism and ARZA: www.urj.org

Young Israel charity fund: www.youngisrael.org

Zaka, a recovery and identification organization: www.zaka.us

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Tunisian Jews safe but watchful

The violence roiling Tunisia hasn’t put the country’s 1,500 or so Jews in serious jeopardy, but Jewish organizations are increasingly concerned about their fate as massive anti-government protests continue.

No Jews have been targeted by the protesters, according to Roger Bismuth, a Jewish businessman and member of Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend following violent protests by mostly unemployed young men venting their anger at Ben Ali and his wealthy cronies.

On Tuesday, the North African country’s interim prime minister and president, Mohamed Ghannouchi and Fouad Mebazaa, both resigned from what had been the country’s ruling party.

“The community is fine,” Bismuth told JTA by phone from Tunis. “Up until now we’ve had no problems. This is not really a matter of religion; it’s a popular revolution. The Jewish community is very well taken care of.”

Asked about Ben Ali, often described by the local Jewish community as a protector of Tunisia’s Jews, Bismuth sounded a new tone.

“He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth said. “He and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, described the Tunisian government of Ben Ali as a “corrupt and kleptocratic dictatorship.”

About 1,000 Jews, the majority of Tunisia’s Jewish community, live on the island of Djerba, where Jews have maintained a historical presence for more than 2,000 years. Another 400 Jews live in Tunis, the capital, with much smaller communities in Zarzis, Sfax, and Sousse.

The country’s population of 9.5 million is nearly all Muslims. Islam is the state religion of Tunisia, which sits on the Mediterranean coast between Algeria and Libya just south of Italy.

In 2002, a terrorist attack on the El-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba involving a truck bomb killed 21 tourists, mostly Germans. Al-Qaida took responsibility for the bombing.

Judy Amit, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s regional director for Africa and Asia, said her organization has been in daily contact with Tunisian Jewish leaders throughout the crisis.

“Ever since the rioting erupted there, we’ve been in close contact with members of the community,” said Amit, speaking in an interview from Israel. “It’s an economic protest with local grievances related to high unemployment and high food prices. There’s been no violence against the Jewish community, and no Jews or Jewish institutions have been targeted.”

Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, noted that “Jews have been part of the fabric of Tunisian life for more than 2,000 years, since well before the Arab conquest.”

Yet Isaacson, who visited Tunisia last month, warned that things could quickly change for the worse.

“My concern is that if the situation is not stabilized, there could be further instability and create a breeding ground for extremism,” he said. “That’s not been a part of the equation, but it could happen if the enormous damage done first by Ben Ali and second by the riots is not compensated by a very serious international infusion of outside assistance.”

As of Tuesday, some 78 people have been killed, with economic losses estimated at $2.2 billion — equivalent to about 4 percent of Tunisia’s GDP. Schools and universities have been shut down as a precaution against violence and vandalism by protesters, including the Chabad school in downtown Tunis.

Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC’s country director for Tunisia, said his main concern is for the 100 Jews of Zarzis, who live in a two-square-block area just off the town center. Four non-Jewish civilians were killed during protests there late last week, and a Jewish-owned shop was among the many looted.

Bar-Chaim said that until a few days ago, this self-imposed “ghetto without walls” was carefully guarded by police. But the police have “simply disappeared from the streets of Zarzis and the army presence there is basically a passive one,” he reported.

“The police have reportedly disappeared in many places throughout Tunisia,” though a heavy police presence continues to guard the Grand Synagogue of Tunis and the central building of the Jewish community, he said.

Isaacson, who has been speaking by phone daily to Bismuth and other Tunisian Jewish leaders since the crisis began, said that “It’s generally a secular uprising directed at the regime’s corruption and economic stagnation and a general desire for freedom, especially in the last few days as unrest has continued.”

Sharansky warned of an “ever-present possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment leading to violence” in the cities where Jews live and work.

“Before the revolt, Ben Ali had a tolerant attitude towards the Jewish community,” he wrote. “Until the revolt there was no blatant anti-Semitism. However, an uncomfortable relationship between the Jewish community and the Arab population exists.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Israeli visitor boosts P2K partnership

Raya Strauss lauds program that connects communities

Raya Strauss is a born and bred Israeli, but says she did not feel fully Jewish until she forged close friendships with diaspora Jews through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program linking Israeli and American communities.

Today, as international P2K co-chair and Israeli director of the P2K partnership between her hometown of Nahariya and the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, she champions the program as a Jewish lifesaver.

“When a delegation came to me from North Jersey seven or eight years ago and asked me to lead P2K, I didn’t want to be part of it because I didn’t understand it,” she told The Jewish Standard following a March 30 presentation to UJA-NNJ.

image
Raya Strauss builds bridges between UJA-NNJ and its sister city in Israel. courtesy raya strauss

“It’s so sad now to admit I was an ignorant Israeli. I never went to synagogue and I never thought about how Jews live, about what they do,” said Strauss. “So I agreed to host visitors, but not to co-chair the project. Now, I am totally involved and totally in love. I felt I found my family.”

At the federation’s Paramus offices, she talked about how P2K fits into the Jewish Agency’s new strategic plan and the federation’s own strategic plan, which has targeted Jewish identity-building as one of its core priorities for the next four to five years.

“The plan is about reconnecting the young people we are losing in America, and also those in Israel, because most young Israelis are secular and are traveling the world without any awareness of their Jewishness,” said Strauss.

“Once they meet American Jews at [P2K] programs, they say, ‘We went as Israelis and came back as Jews.’ And Americans who participate come out feeling connected to Israel at a time when that is not so easy.”

The goal is to broaden existing partnerships, which now encompass 550 diaspora communities with 46 in Israel through school twinning, professional exchange programs, and other opportunities for personal engagement. “There are endless possibilities to fulfill our common need for strengthening Jewish identity,” she said.

“Every school in Nahariya is connected with a day school or supplementary school in North Jersey,” said Stuart Levy, UJA-NNJ community shaliach. “We have participation from 11 out of the 14 day schools, and 11 of the 12 supplemental schools.”

For the fifth year in a row, select 17-year-old Israelis from Nahariya will work as counselors in North Jersey Jewish day camps, this summer at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and at Camp Veritans in Passaic County. A choir from Nahariya’s Amal High School will perform in honor of Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day this May at several North Jersey venues.

A new facet of the project is to bring local Birthright Israel participants to the sister city in Israel’s north.

“UJA’s Center for Israel Engagement is arranging for two Birthright groups from North Jersey to go to Nahariya in May and June,” said Levy. “They will do projects there that will enable them to feel ownership in Israel, something lasting they created with Israelis.”

Strauss sees this as an important investment in the Jewish future. “I’m looking to do much more to touch the participants in Birthright and prepare them much better for university,” she said.

Ted Greenwood, local chair of UJA-NNJ P2K, said the highlight of the program has been “the extent to which we’ve managed to connect individuals and schools in northern New Jersey and Nahariya, at family, professional, and organizational levels.”

He cited a medical exchange program for first responders held at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, which has an underground emergency department, and a legal exchange program involving a group of Bergen County prosecutors and their Israeli counterparts.

“All of this is for [their] mutual benefit,” said Greenwood. “One of the pillars of our new strategic plan is strengthening Jews in North Jersey through contact with Israelis, and P2K is at the center of that. We’ll work on adding other ways to connect young people in Israel, here, and maybe even in other parts of the world. We’ll also work on connecting synagogues in our community with synagogues in Nahariya.”

 
 
 
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