The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington voted Wednesday night to sever relations with the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether program and instead look to new ways for residents in this area to connect with the people of Israel.
The Federation will phase out its relationship with the areas of Beit Shemesh-Mateh Yehuda in Israel and South Africa by June 30, 2015 and will in the meantime work to form partnerships with various places throughout the entire country of Israel. The Federation may very well choose to hold programs with the residents of Beit Shemesh, said Steve Rakitt, executive vice president and CEO of the Federation of Greater Washington. “We are not abandoning it.”
Immediately following the board’s “virtually unanimous” decision Wednesday, Rakitt explained that the Federation board members decided it no longer wanted to be constrained by any one particular construct. “It was a very robust and open discussion, very thoughtful,” he said.
The board focused on what it considered “the somewhat limiting” Partnership2gether program. The consensus was that geography shouldn’t constrain relationships, Rakitt said.
The Federation has had close ties with the Beit Shemesh, the site where David was said to have slain Goliath, community for 19 years. Together, they have launched a school twinning program, connecting schools, teachers and students in this area with their counterparts in Israel. There also have been events at vineyards, bicycling races and others involving educators, artists and cooks, all designed to form lasting personal relationships.
However, the makeup of Beit Shemesh has changed as has the Federation’s vision of its relationship with Israel. “After a number of years contemplating the question of ‘how to best connect our community with Israel,’ our leadership has come to a decision that we need to move on from the P2G platform for our community,” said Liza Levy, Federation president.
The Partnership2Gether platform connects some 550 communities around the world in 45 partnerships, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Montgomery County had plans to become a sister city with Beit Shemesh several years ago but tabled the vote after the community’s ultra-Orthodox section became the scene of much unrest. Some members of its haredi (fervently Orthodox) population harassed and sometimes even physically attacked females of all ages, whom they said were not dressing immodestly and otherwise not living up to their stringent religious standards.
About 40 people adamantly opposed to becoming a sister city with Beit Shemesh attended a Montgomery County Sisters City meeting two years ago and urged the county not to partner up with with an area they said was the focus of hate violence. Some of the people in attendance questioned why the county would want to partner with what they labeled a segregated city where neither women nor Arabs were treated as full citizens.
Roughly 45 Jewish communities, most in the United States and Canada, have federation-affiliated sister city programs with Israeli municipalities and regions.
The Jewish Federation of Cleveland has partnered with the Galilee city of Beit Shean and the adjoining valley since 1995, said Ilanit Gerblich Kalir, managing director for international operations.
The relationship has “changed dramatically” over the decades, she said. The early mission was to help with capital projects and economic growth. The relationship now is with Partnership2gether and focuses on connecting people.
“We have congregations that visit Israel. We think it’s critical to make an Israeli friend,” she said. Cleveland is also supporting a program for youth at risk.
In its 25-year partnership with the northern port city of Haifa, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston has traveled a similar road.
When the relationship began, Haifa was settling the influx of Jews arriving from the former Soviet Union and the focus was on economic development, said Ariel Libhaber, director of the Boston-Haifa Connection.
“Initially it was, how can Americans help Israel? But it quickly evolved into almost equal footing,” he said. Boston is supporting its own “Kids at Risk” program in Haifa and is “looking at expanding it throughout Israel.”