By Aaron Gorodzinsky
Director of Outreach and Community Relations
I have had the opportunity to volunteer in and visit Israel several times over the years, but a few weeks ago, I was finally able to visit home. Right after I landed at Ben Gurion, I knew this was going to be a very special trip. Coming out of the terminal, I was greeted by our Partnership2Gether coordinator in Yoav, Yonit Waldner Peleg, and met with Hana Bachar, a member of the P2G committee and my host for the week.
Once we got to Beit Guvrin, Hana and I stopped at the center of the kibbutz where Hana’s daughter Shai, who was one of our summer schlichot three years ago, was visiting with a group of teens from the Israel Goldstein Youth Village from Jerusalem. Kids from Ukraine and Russia live at the youth village and attend school during the year while waiting for their families to make aliyah. The teens from the youth village came to the kibbutz to celebrate the end of the school year and Ofer, Hana’s husband, was using the community oven, funded by a grant from Partnership2Gether, to make fresh pizza for them. Seeing the community oven being used was one of the first opportunities I had to see how important our Partnership2Gether programs are in Yoav.
On Sunday, I had an early meeting with Matti Sarfatti Harcavi, the mayor of Yoav and former P2G chair. Matti began the meeting by stressing how deeply committed she is to our partnership and how proud she is of the people-to-people connections that have been created so far.
Following our initial conversation, Matti spoke to me about some of the challenges Yoav is facing right now, where in the last four years, they have welcomed over 400 new families in the community, most of them with young children. The rapid population increase in the municipality has forced the building of five new schools in the last few years. Beyond that, the new members of Yoav, most of them middle class, elevate the per-capita earning rating in the community, which means Yoav gets less assistance from the government to fund certain projects, including education and social services. This is why Matti’s vision for the future is making sure that Yoav, located in a prime spot in Israel, becomes a center for industry that will create new revenue.
The next couple of days, I visited the Sdot Yoav School and Haela. In Sdot Yoav I had the opportunity to meet with the 5th and 6th graders who have been working for the past two years with the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley through our “School Twinning” program. The kids at the school were so eager to talk about their friends in the Lehigh Valley and how much they have connected over the past two years. They showed me the videos they have made for their friends at the Jewish Day School, and shared some of their favorite activities.
Following the meeting with the kids, I had a meeting with the educators, principal and vice principal at the school who reiterated how committed they are to continuing our twinning relationship. At Haela, I had the opportunity to meet with the kids who participated in “The Same Moon” program that year, and deliver their certificates. The kids were eager to share how much they have learned from their friends in the Lehigh Valley, and, in a very touching moment, they asked me if we can find a way for them to continue connecting with their friends now that the official program has ended. Seeing how engaged the kids are in school – and how committed both school administrations are – is a reminder of how important it is for us to continue funding these people-to-people programs that are creating powerful long-lasting relationships that strengthen and connect our communities.
Another highlight of my trip was having the opportunity to tour a few of the pre-schools and after-school programs in Yoav and find new ways to connect our communities. At Kfar Menachem, the largest kibbutz in Yoav, I met with Reut Rokach, who is the director of the after-school programs and summer camp. Ruth, Yonit and I talked about the challenges the kibbutz is facing after welcoming a large percentage of young families with children who all attend the after-school programs. Beyond the financial burden to the kibbutz, one of the challenges is finding appropriate spaces for the kids where there is a limited amount of space. In our conversation, we also had an opportunity to discuss the possibility of some joint programs in the future, including the opportunity to have young schlichim from the Lehigh Valley working at one of the summer camps in Yoav.
At Beit Nir, I met with Ayelet, the pre-school principal, who took me around and showed me how similar our pre-schools are in the way they operate, except for the fact that at the kibbutz, they spend a lot more time in nature and visiting the farm animals. This was an exciting visit, because Ayelet and Alexa Karakos, the ECE director at the JCC of the Lehigh Valley, are scheduling a meeting in the next few weeks to work on a people-to-people program to connect the pre-schools.
In between all of these meetings, I also had the chance to visit some of the schlichim who stayed in our community in the past few years. Aside from Shai Bachar, who I had the chance to meet a few times, one of the most moving things I learned while visiting the teens is seeing how most of them are still in contact with their host families in the Lehigh Valley, and how much time they spend with our new schlichim, helping them and giving them advice before the trip.
At one of the dinners with the teens and their parents, three former schlichim joined us to talk about their experience and spoke to our current teens about the important role they play at the camp. It was also wonderful to see how committed the former schlichim are to bettering their communities, as I came to learn, most of them are volunteering for a year as shinshinim, volunteering for a year in different communities in need in Israel or abroad before they enlist in the army.
Finally, on my last day in Israel, I had an incredible dinner conversation with the members of the Partnership2Gether committee in Yoav. Beyond the unbelievable food, the evening was a great chance to talk about the vision the committee has to continue working on the people-to-people connections and find ways to bring more people to Yoav to experience what I got to experience that week.
If you are visiting Israel soon, I will encourage you to be in touch with me and arrange a stop in Yoav. Trust me, you will be welcomed with open arms and feel just like home.
Yoav is the Lehigh Valley’s sister community in Israel through the Partnership2Gether program of the Jewish Agency for Israel. To learn more, visit our Partnership2Gether page.