After an enjoyable Shabbat exploring the Galilee, Rick and I were scooped up early Sunday morning by Tzachi Levy, the coordinator of the TiPS Partnership Program, which stands for Tucson, Phoenix and Seattle - we got top billing cause we are so cool (not really - PiTS or SPiT just didn't sound right). Adi Shacham, the Youth Coordinator for the Partnership joined us along the way.
Our Partner communities are Kiryat Milachi and Hof Ashkelon. These are poor communities that are heavily dominated by immigrants primarily from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. The idea for the partnership came from the Jewish Agency seven to eight years ago with the idea being that twinning cities would not only help the local communities but it would also help strengthen the tie to Israel for Jews living abroad.
There are two components to the program- one is supporting local needs, the partnership's priorities being healthy youth activities and leadership development. The second aspect is helping to strengthen Jewish identity and continuity through reverse programming. This has resulted in school twinning, speakers and community visits.
We were taken on a whirlwind two days, meeting both individuals that are involved with the partnership as well as representatives from our grantees outside the partnership.
The partnership works with the local municipalities, non-profits and community leaders. On Sunday we met with representatives from the Kiryat Milachi Jewish Community Center, the Municipality liaison, the KM Senior Center, a community advocacy center, a parents/children center and a community factory that employs individuals with special needs.
All of these programs were amazing, but the highlights of the day were having lunch with Ethiopian social worker, Zahava Baruch (for whom we have provided program support for many years) and meeting with the Acharai program soldiers.
Zahava has the magic touch, knowing how to work with families in a culturally sensitive way. Her work has made a dramatic difference in the lives of many families. It was wonderful being able to connect Dvora with Zehava, who had never previously met - at which point a wonderful discussion ensued about the need for additional training of other social workers serving the Ethiopian community there.
The Acharai program works with youth who have challenges to help them with homework, activities, and getting good jobs within the Israeli Army (which is compulsory for ALL youth graduating from high school). We met with a number of soldiers who had benefited from the program and who are now counselors. Their enthusiasm was infectious!
We were delighted to then be hosted by a local family at a nearby Moshav. Their home was lovely and we were spoiled terribly! Asher is retired from the army and working as a regional manager of their version of Target and Sari works assessing the needs of children with disabilities. Their children and Asher's sister lives right on the Moshav so they have frequent visits.
Monday hit us between the eyes and right in the heart. We started the day visiting Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz that pre-dates the founding of Israel. It is a beautiful kibbutz just a few miles from the Gaza strip. From Yad Mordechai we went to a Moshav, Netiv L'Shalom, that is right on the border with Gaza. We met with Roni Keidar who has lived on the Moshav with her husband for many years. Every Wednesday, Roni goes to the border and picks up residents of Gaza who need specialized doctors visits in Israel. She takes them, stays with them and then drives them back to the border. When air raids hit, she and her friends frantically text each other to make sure they are ok.. on each side of the wall.
She has turned her passion into action by hosting conferences of those living in Israel and Gaza to try and find peaceful solutions and movement in their situation. Getting participants from Gaza is no easy feat as each individual hoping to cross into Israel needs two approvals from Gaza and one from Israel. She hopes to sponsor a conference this February on the impact of the stress of the living situation on the children on both sides of the wall.
We ended our time with our partners at the Netiv L'Shalom mosaic, a tribute to peace and understanding that all who visit can participate in by placing mosaic pieces on the wall. For all of you wonderful folks who have given me money to donate in Israel, this is where the funds went- to help support this project.
Rick and I were both so moved by the experience, by the efforts and challenges facing small immigrant communities in a rapidly changing country, by the passion that Israelis have for one another and their progress, by the warm generosity that we were shown by our host family and how very comfortable we felt, by how honored we were to hear of the wonderful work that is being done with Tucson support and mainly by the extraordinary spirit of hope that those we met have. These are not people who are giving up on their dreams for themselves, their country or for their neighbors.
Tracy Salkowitz is a Consultant,activist and the former CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.