IS-Partners Epstein School twinning

By Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel

One of the anomalies of my relationship with Israel is that although I have visited Israel close to 30 times, beginning with a synagogue youth trip in 1972, I have no family in Israel — no one, not even a distant cousin. So many people have family to visit, and while I am blessed with many friends and acquaintances, I have no one to call mishpacha. That is, until now.

I have been part of many Federation missions, synagogue trips and rabbinic study programs in Israel. I have visited Israel Aircraft Industries, high-tech companies, and intelligence outposts near Gaza and in the Golan Heights. But it is my annual visit to Yokneam and the Megiddo Regional Council the past seven years that has enabled me to say, “I now have family in Israel.”IS-Partners challah for Shabbat

Yael, Arkaday and Judy, Levana, Ayelet, Tzofia, Eshel and Andrea, Sima, Shoshi Tegania, and Avraham treat me like family. Our Jewish Agency staff and relationships with the mayor’s office in Yokneam and Megiddo’s regional staff have enabled me to feel at home in a small corner of the Jewish state.

Yokneam, a medium city of 35,000 people 20 miles southeast of Haifa, and the neighboring Megiddo Regional Council, consisting of 13 kibbutzim and moshavim with 13,000 people, have become my home away from home. The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis provide funding for services to these two communities to support children, high school students and families at risk of economic, educational and psychological challenges that require resources above and beyond what Israel’s cities and municipalities can provide to its citizens.

In addition, our relationship, now celebrating its 18th anniversary, creates connections and friendships for our Federation and its leadership in our yearly meetings in the region, visits by synagogues such as The Temple and Congregation Etz Chaim, and regular visits by Birthright groups from Atlanta and the University of Georgia. These trips enable each of us to have personal relationships with the citizens, the teachers, the counselors and the leaders of these dynamic and important Israeli communities

Levana Caro, the Jewish Agency’s partnership director, said, “Atlanta’s partnership with Yokneam/Megiddo has changed the lives of many people in the region, giving families at risk a chance for a better life, from enrichment programs for children in all grades to army preparation training for seniors in high school to economic and financial advocacy for families seeking to achieve financial success and independence for their families.”

Caro also noted the lifelong relationships that are built in our partnership.

The Atlanta Jewish community can be proud of the way we contribute to Israeli society in our partnership region. The programs we fund include parenting classes for Ethiopian mothers; a variety of learning enrichment programs for elementary, middle and high school students; sports programs for disadvantaged youth; support of the Yokneam Youth Center; in-home assistance in homework to help parents engage with their children about their schoolwork and help them do homework at home with volunteer coaching; community and financial empowerment for families facing financial difficulties and supporting Jewish National Fund’s new Lotem Park to make the outdoors accessible for children and adults with disabilities; and Leket, which fights hunger by IS-Partners Homework at Home leadersenabling volunteers to gather fruits and vegetables in the fields and deliver them to families at risk.

As Andrea Arbel, the Jewish Agency’s director of partnership, described our contributions, our partnership “turns the ideas of ‘Israel’ and the ‘global Jewish family’ from an abstract concept into a tangible, vibrant and compelling reality where friendships, genuine feelings of kinship, an ever-expanding network of relationships and creating a platform for American Jews and Israeli Jews to engage with each other creates a living bridge to Israel.”

I’m filled with pride and admiration when I watch visiting teen volunteers lead a weekly program for teens with disabilities, high school seniors learn and compete in a variety of training courses to prepare for the Israel Defense Forces, Ethiopian men create and maintain their own agricultural farm to bring extra crops to those in need, the Warm Home program provide elementary and middle school children educational and psychological services after school to help them succeed in school and life, and new immigrants succeed in navigating the stages of education and training to achieve economic and educational success.

As we approach Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Israel as we together celebrate the 67th anniversary of the creation of the state. We can support Israel in many ways, through studying in Israel, touring Israel, investing in Israel and developing relationships with any of the thousands of nonprofit groups that support the people of Israel.

My family contributes a significant amount to support Israel predominantly through Federation and to support religious pluralism in Israel through the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel. We buy Israel Bonds, and we support over a dozen other charities in our support of Israel.

What gives me the greatest satisfaction is knowing that these dollars help real people with real problems and challenges. The friendships I have made with the residents of Yokneam and with our team of professional staffers who help us achieve our goals give me great confidence that we are making a difference in the lives of thousands of Israelis who strive every day to fulfill the Zionist ideal and help build a strong, vibrant, successful Jewish state. If you wish to join me by making new friends and family in Israel, write to me at ravkerbel@etzchaim.net.

Rabbi Paul Kerbel is a rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim and vice chairman of the Israel Outcomes Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Rabbi Kerbel is also a member of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the Rabbinic Cabinet of Jewish Federations of North American and Israel Bonds, and the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.