An Israel Bond

Congregations use grants to create innovative programs connecting their communities to the Jewish State

by Deborah Fineblum

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Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California, used a Ma’alot grant to have members record their Israel experiences.

In Saskatoon, Canada, they brought together young adults for an evening celebrating Israeli pop culture. In Highland Park, Illinois, they hosted an Israeli birthday party complete with movies, dance, a sing-along, and a falafel stand. In New Rochelle, New York, they created an Israel Technology Fair and were briefed by a Technion professor on the latest gee-whiz inventions from the country’s booming tech sector. In Holliston, Massachusetts, they built friendships between their teens and those in Haifa through the magic of Skype meet-ups. In Clark, New Jersey, they gathered college kids returning from Israel who shared their adventures and photos. And in San Diego, California, they helped send eight newlywed couples on an unforgettable trip to Israel.

Each of these projects, and more than 40 others across North America, is unique, designed by a synagogue for the express purpose of building a bridge connecting its community to the Jewish homeland. But as diverse as they are, all were made possible by a powerful partnership between the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and the organization Nefesh B’Nefesh.

The mission of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which has brought close to 40,000 people to new homes in Israel since 2002, includes making the dream of living in Israel a reality as well as “educating and inspiring the Jews of the Diaspora as to the centrality of the Jewish State…and sending an unmistakable signal of Anglo- Israeli Jewish solidarity.” So five years ago, when Rabbi Paul Freedman, Director of Israel Strategic Partnerships for USCJ, approached Nefesh B’Nefesh with the idea of creating a program to boost Conservative Jews’ awareness of, and involvement with, Israel, NBN leaders saw it as a wonderful investment in this crucial bond.

The result is a program called Ma’alot, through which Nefesh B’Nefesh has so far awarded grants totaling $250,000 to United Synagogue congregations for innovative projects that connect North American Jews to Israel. The awards committee selects applicants whose proposals it believes will have the most impact on their communities.

“It seemed like a great way of getting Israel into the congregations and the congregations into Israel,” says Rabbi Freedman. “And the only way it was possible was with the support Nefesh B’Nefesh was willing to give.”

Now in its fourth year, Ma’alot: Taking Steps Toward Raising Israel Awareness, has awarded grants to over 150 congregations across North America, from Saskatoon, Canada, to Miami, and from Long Island to Los Angeles. The USCJ, through Rabbi Freedman (whom everyone knows as Rabbi Paul), is tasked with the administration, including applications, selection and evaluation, with support stateside from Ari Schuchman, who directs Nefesh B’Nefesh’s North American operations. “Since not everyone can come to Israel, with Ma’a lot, we bring Israel to them,” says Schuchman. “And the more engaged with Israel they are, the more of them will come and see it, understand what their family and friends see in it and eventually be able to see themselves there, too.”

Word has also spread that Ma’alot is a program that can help transform a congregation’s relationship with Israel, and the applicant process for 2014-2015 attracted more than 40 proposals. At least 10 of them will receive $2,500 microgrants from Nefesh B’Nefesh, and two will receive a matching grant with the congregation (or as is sometimes the case, several synagogues in a community) raising $10,000 and Nefesh B’Nefesh matching it with $7,000.

People in Lower Marion, Pennsylvania, are still talking about the week last spring when Israeli troubadour and Jewish educator Yehudah Katz came to town. Katz shared his music and passion for Israel with four area synagogues, a day school and the entire community at a public concert, reaching more than 500 people in five days.

“He communicated to everyone Israel as a place that’s open and home to all Jews,” says Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. “He was inspirational; in both his music and his teaching, the message came across. He brought the community together with the idea that, no matter what, the one thing we don’t doubt is our love for and connection with Israel.”

At Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, New York, a Ma’alot grant allowed them to target a group they saw as especially needing to hear this message: college-bound teens. So they arranged for Queens College Jewish Studies Professor Mark Rosenblum to present five intensive “Let’s Talk About Israel: Informed Engagement” seminars, preparing students for what they may hear on college campuses, how to refute distorted statements and where to look for support.

“Our idea was to give the students from our congregation and the entire community the skills to withstand the pressure they are likely to encounter on campus in a year or two,” said Beth Sholom’s Director of Lifelong Learning Gila Hadani Ward. “This is especially challenging when anti-Israel comments come from a professor whom they’re used to thinking of as an authority figure. They have to ask themselves who—and what—they can believe.” One positive outcome: The juniors in the program who were shopping for colleges told Ward that they now keep an eye open for evidence of anti-Israel propaganda during their campus tours.

In Palo Alto , California, Congregation Kol Emeth has been forging a relationship with the Arava region of Southern Israel in a creative multi-year program that’s embraced storytelling, photography, recordings of congregants’ Israel experiences, and most recently, art projects that span the miles. “We began with the need to discover why Israel is so important in our lives,” says Israel Action Committee Chair Barbara Schapira. Sharing stories led to a photo contest and a mosaic of the Kotel made up of congregants’ photos that remain on display in the shul.

By the third year, the congregation heard that the Arava region of Israel desperately needed a medical facility. Kol Emeth surpassed its $50,000 goal by $10,000, which is how the love affair with that region began. Now several congregants have added the Arava to their Israel tours. “What we learned is that tzedaka is so much more than giving money,” says Schapira. “It also means getting to know the people and the region and building relationships. Ma’alot challenged us to think outside the box, about what Israel means to us.” Like many Conservative Jews, Schapira also has a very personal connection to Israel: her son Michael made aliyah 10 years ago.

This spring, as the fourth year of Ma’alot projects wraps up, there is a shared sense of pride in the program’s growing track record of engagement with the Jewish homeland. “The enormous success of the Nefesh B’Nefesh-USCJ Israel Committee Partnership’s Ma’alot program proves how integral Israel and Aliyah awareness is among members of the Conservative movement,” says Tony Gelbart, co-founder and chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh. “We are honored to continue partnering with United Synagogue on this exciting program and helping raise the profile of Israel and aliyah among Conservative Jews.”