By JESSICA LEVING
Twenty years ago, in 1996, Chicago was one of the first diaspora communities to get involved with a new platform for connection between Israel and the diaspora: Partnership 2000. The goal? To create new connections between Israelis and worldwide Jewry -- to know one another better, work on issues of mutual concern, and allocate funds together to worthy programs.
Today, the program has taken on a new name -- Partnership Together (P2G) -- but the key goals remain the same. Jointly led by Israeli and Chicago lay leadership, JUF's programs in our Israeli partnership region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir benefit participants on both sides of the ocean, sharing resources and fostering lifelong connections.
Over the past 20 years, JUF has allocated more than $30 million toward projects that deepen our connection to this special place, supporting the region's most vulnerable members and providing joint opportunities for development and innovation.
Here are a few of the ways JUF helps out-of-the-box thinkers sustainably address social issues in our Partnership Together region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir:
SAHI Food Delivery
A truly win-win program, SAHI is a social contribution project in which at-risk teens -- many with histories of violence and vandalism -- covertly deliver weekly food packages to needy families in their area. Recruited largely by word-of-mouth, teens participate in the program willingly, encouraging their friends to join the gang of altruistic "spies" and help identify people in need in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, teens in one group will secretly deliver food packages to the families of teens in another group, who are themselves in need.
"The teens are learning to see, and to understand-and not ignore," said staff member Yohay Bohbot. "They develop real empathy."
The SAHI program has been proven to reduce school dropouts and the number of youth involved in vandalism-as well as increasing the number of teens successfully matriculating into the Israel Defense Forces. This program was a local innovation and today not only serves 120 teens in the Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir region, but has spread to 18 groups throughout Israel.
Israel Children's Zone
Sometimes, innovation is as simple as looking at an old problem from a new angle. When regional leaders in Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir were faced with continued challenges in the public school system, they decided to take a fresh approach, creating a multi-organizational network that allowed representatives from schools, families, and various intervention programs to share perspectives
The resulting network is now known as Israel Children's Zone (ICZ)-and is the country's flagship educational intervention program.
"It's a holistic approach," said Amir Ellenberg, partnership co-chair. "We are essentially creating a round table around each school and each student, so that no one gets left behind."
ICZ incorporates three key existing national programs which provide a variety of interventions based on the specific needs of the students: Revadim, a school reform plan that assesses individual student difficulties and offers tailored solutions; Youth Futures, an intensive intervention program using young adult mentors who build relationships with at-risk students and families; and Etgarim, which offers outdoor adventure training and therapy to students with special needs.
Hineni Agricultural Center
A few years ago, community organizers in Kiryat Gat found they had a problem. The city had established a senior center aimed at engaging older Ethiopian immigrants-who make up a sizable part of the community-but no one was coming.
"The programs weren't appealing culturally," explained Hineni staff member Rabbi Azaria Ftegu. "You have to engage people where they are."
For this population, that meant farming. Thus, the Shorashim (roots) program was born-a self-sustaining experiential agricultural center where Ethiopian elders work the land, growing produce and constructing traditional mud huts ( gojos ). The center provides food for the community and, perhaps more importantly, helps participants find a renewed sense of purpose while sharing a wealth of cultural knowledge with the larger community through guided tours and workshops.
"In Ethiopia, I was a farmer," said Shachar, a participant. "I worked the land. When I joined Hineni -- and finally could feel the land of Israel after years of living here with no direction-it was a dream. Finally, I found my destination. It gave me hope again."
Hineni also works to meet the needs of Ethiopian-Israeli women and teens through continually evolving grassroots programming.
Named after a favorite candy treat in Israel that is so delicate each one needs to be wrapped by hand, Krembo Wings is national youth movement in Israel for children with mild to severe special needs. Through individual care and partnership with the local community, each child in the program is given "wings" to experience life alongside their peers.
Once a week, kids aged 7-21 who have special needs meet with typically developing teen volunteers who receive special training to guide their partner in games, songs, drama, and arts and crafts. In addition to the teen counselors who work directly with special needs participants, adult volunteer branch managers assist in guiding the program and implementing weekly activity plans.
"There's something magical and special at Krembo Wings," said Alon, age 11, a participant who has autism. "No one judges you. I feel safe, I feel open… Everyone there is my friend."
When school-based foreign language classes let out for the summer, it can be tricky to maintain newly learned language skills. That's just one of many reasons Kefiada-an English-speaking, American-style day camp for Israeli 4 th -6 th graders was born.
In addition to helping students practice their English and gain fluency, Kefiada also serves as a bridge between Israeli students from Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir and Chicago college students who volunteer to staff the program as counselors. American staff stay with host families and gain a first-hand experience of Israeli life, all while lending their native English skills to the kids in the program, as well as Israeli junior counselors and on-site staff.
"My Kefiada experience solidified my connection to Israel," said Roxie Zeller, a Skokie native who volunteered as a counselor through Kefiada. "I now have a second home waiting for me anytime. I felt as if I were a citizen."
A Message from the 2016 Partnership Together Committee Chairs:
This year, we celebrate the 20 th anniversary of JUF's Partnership Together program, which connects the Chicago Jewish community with the region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir! We are working to meet the needs in this developing region-which is like a home away from home in Israel for many Chicagoans-and enrich our connections through ongoing activities like our school-to-school mifgashim (exchanges), English-speaking summer camp in Israel, and Ta'am Yisrael and Birthright Israel visits in the region.
We invite you to join us as we strengthen our connections, create opportunities, and continue to meet needs of Israel's most vulnerable. There is so much to be proud of, so much to celebrate, and so much more to do! We thank the Partnership Chairs who preceded us and the committee members who have worked so hard to help the partnership grow.
Throughout the year we will be sharing stories about the impact of our Partnership. If you have a story or a picture to share, or would like to get involved, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Kim Shwachman and Amir Ellenberg
This story originally appeared in JUF News