In 1995 it seemed an over-ambitious goal: to unite Jews around the world with each other and with Israelis; to include secular, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews in the effort; and to involve Jewish children, teens and adults in a Jewish connectivity program that would span the world and had the potential to touch the entirety of global Jewry.
Ongoing personal engagement
The Jewish Agency for Israel presented the idea back then, to create formal sister city style relationships between, on one hand, Israeli cities, towns, community centers and rural regional councils and, on the other hand, overseas Jewish Federations and organizations. Municipalities and world Jewish communities signed on to the program, called Partnership 2000 at the time, and got to work creating projects to encourage Jews from different countries to visit each other, work together and inspire each other.
The novel twist was that the Partnerships were to benefit both sides, not only the Israelis. Traditionally, explained Andrea Arbel, Director of Partnerships for the Jewish Agency, world Jewry had provided Israel with financial, political and moral support. What has changed is the increasing recognition that Israel has a primary role in the continuity of world Jewry, and that there is mutual responsibility to ensure a strong and vibrant future for the Jewish people.
This month, the Jewish Agency is celebrating the 18th anniversary of what is now called Partnership2Gether (P2G). Today, the P2G network includes 45 partnerships, with a total of over 550 Jewish communities around the world. Its projects engage about 350,000 people every year, and it has evolved into a bridge for ongoing, personal engagement with Israel and Israelis. It is also one of the few venues for Israelis to engage directly with global Jewry over time. The Jewish Agency leads the network in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod.
P2Gs flagship program, the Global School Twinning Network, has paired 250 Israeli schools – representing all grade levels and religious ideologies – with 250 counterpart schools abroad, engaging about 52,000 students and several thousand educators. P2G involves thousands of other young people through youth leadership training, Taglit-Birthright trips to Partnership regions, and Israeli camp counselors and volunteers serving their sister cities. In addition, the wider community is engaged, for example through registered host families, delegation visits both to and from Israel, and six Partnership business loan funds that have helped create about 5,000 jobs.
With 40 percent of the worlds Jews in Israel, said Arbel, and 40 percent in the United States, the worlds largest Jewish centers are marked by different cultures, and different ideas of what it means to be a Jew. We all want Jewish unity – the starting point is for us to understand one another. Partnership2Gether creates bridges so that we arent strangers to each other, but rather members of one people who care for, and learn from, one another.
The reciprocal nature of P2G makes it enticing for philanthropists, who see it as a chance to invest in their own communities as well as in Israel, said Iris Meidan Posklinsky, who is the Partnership Director for both the Northern Galilee-United Kingdom partnership and the Zahar-Palm Beach (Florida) partnership. Theres a growing movement to address the challenges to Jews abroad, she said, and P2G can be part of that strategy. Its your own youth in the leadership programs, your own children in school twinning, yourselves in the womens empowerment programs.
Those involved in P2G said that making friends with Israelis over the course of several years has a deep impact on the Jewish identities of those abroad, said Hagar Shoham-Marko, Director of the Global School Twinning Network and Director of Partnerships for Israels Central Region, helping them feel that they have a home in the country – not just an abstract knowledge of Israels history, but people they want to visit when they come here.
The emotional impact on Israelis is equally profound, she said. They meet Jews who have to make an active decision every day to be a Jew. They see that being Jewish is not just a secular-religious dichotomy; Judaism comes in many flavors. It gets them thinking about how they want to live as a Jew.
From school twinning to wineries
One example of a P2G Partnership is the four-way relationship between the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, its adjoining regional council of Mateh Yehudah, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington D.C., and the Jewish community of South Africa with Keren Hayesod.
In the wake of much-publicized tension recently between ultra-Orthodox and national-religious residents of Beit Shemesh, the partnership leadership worked together to identify and support grassroots programs that would promote peaceful co-existence.
Seven schools in Beit Shemesh and Mateh Yehudah are twinned with Jewish day schools in Washington D.C. and South Africa. Each year, teachers engage in a joint training program and together plan the content and activities for the new school year. Students use Facebook and Skype to teach each other English and Hebrew, share school projects and visit each others homes.
In one of the most significant economic successes of the partnership, the discovery that the soil in Mateh Yehudah is similar in composition to that in South Africas wine region led to the South Africa community sending vintners to Israel. The result is over 30 new wineries in and near Mateh Yehudah. Another exciting project is a business-development framework in which women from Mateh Yehudah learn to open ethnic cuisine catering businesses, traveling often to Washington to teach Jewish community members there to cook in international styles.
18 years and going strong
The fact that a person can be involved in a local Partnership over the different stages of the lifecycle is one of the results of the program lasting 18 years, Posklinsky said, and also a reason that it remains popular. You make friends, she said. You meet people as children in School Twinning, and grow together into the youth programs. The Israelis become shlichim (emissaries) and go abroad and meet their friends again. Its a cycle of development over 18 years – you can see people growing up in P2G. Its like a family.
The family feeling is exactly the point of the Partnerships, echoed Doron Lev, a resident of the Jordan Valley and Israeli Co-Chair of the P2G International Steering Committee; it is part of the Jewish Agencys efforts to create a sense of a global Jewish family. We have to work on the continuation of the Jewish people, he said. The Jewish people is just like family, but on a larger scale. If you never call your cousins, eventually you lose contact with them. To maintain the connection we have to put in effort; we are not the generation to break the chain.
The American Co-Chair of the International Steering Committee, Harold Gernsbacher of Dallas, Texas, pointed out that keeping the chain strong means recognizing that the emotions of the next generation of Jews are not tied to the pathways that were built before. The responsibilities inherent in being Jewish are changing. The responsibility of the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and Federations today is to provide opportunities and reasons for the next generation to understand what it means to be responsibly Jewish.
The reason Partnership2Gether is at its beginning, and not at its sunset, he said, is that it engages peoples lives at all ages. It does not conclude. Its not a trip to another country that has an end date. Its an ongoing ability to learn and change with the Jewish world.
For more information about Partnership2Gether, go to http://p2g.jewishagency.org.