Partnership2gether has 45 partnerships in 550 communities with 350,000 participants around the world. There are 450 programs to connect Jewish communities in South America, Europe, Australia, South Africa and North America to Israel.
The communities of Yokneam and Megiddo receive money from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis to support initiatives that have resulted in a greater understanding of Judaism and Israel, said Eliad Eliyahu Ben Shushan, the director of the Partnership2Gether program between Yokneam and Megiddo on one side and Atlanta and St. Louis on the other.
Ben Shushan served as a shaliach (emissary) in Omaha, Neb., where he worked with 14 communities in the Midwest before becoming one of the Partnership2gether directors.
Ben Shushan also served as the shaliach of the Midwest consortium’s partnership with the Western Galilee, which now has a sister city relationship with Sandy Springs.
As a director of Partnership2gether, one of his goals is to strengthen the relationship between Israel and Atlanta. The main legs of the partnership are community development and People 2 People or Kesher. The programs receive funding from Federation to help empower communities and build engagement based on a shared Jewish identity.
“We want to have people build meaningful relationships,” Ben Shushan said. “We want people to see the real Israel. Nowadays, with all the BDS and university protest, you really don’t see the reality of Israeli life.”
When the Jewish Agency launched the program in the 1990s, the basic idea was to connect Jewish Federations and specific communities in Israel, said Bernice Malka, the Living Bridge coordinator for the Partnership2Gether program between Yokneam/Megiddo and Atlanta.
Yokneam was a development city, and at its inception the programming focused heavily on community development. Federation, however, recently approved more money for programs such as Kesher.
Yokneam recently became home to Ohel Menashe, a Conservative synagogue. Federation decided to contribute to the construction two years ago, and Federation continues to support the Conservative community in Yokneam.
Tzachi Aizik, who participated in the Kesher exchange program and is a member of Ohel Menashe, said a Conservative synagogue in Yokneam shows Israelis there are other ways to practice Judaism.
“We want to close the gaps, and People 2 People gave us an opportunity to expose different opportunities to practice Judaism,” Aizik said. “For most Israelis, Judaism, as you know it in America, does not exist.”
In Israel, the understanding of pluralism is limited, Ben Shushan said. His vision for expanding the definition of Judaism among Israelis includes the Macabbim and Melton programs, which create experiences around different forms of Judaism.
A Melton group at the Brill Institute of the Marcus Jewish Community Center recently studied with a group in Yokneam via Skype.
Last September the Melton group visited Israel to tour and celebrate Shabbat, and in December members of the Macabbim group visited Atlanta “and for the first time learned what it means to be Jewish outside of Israel,” Ben Shushan said.
“Macabbim and Melton allow for different forms of Judaism to be discussed,” Ben Shushan said. “You can open your heart and mind to different ways of experiencing Judaism and get a different perspective.”
The International School Twinning Network allows schools in Israel to partner with Atlanta Jewish day schools so children can learn about different forms of Judaism. The students have a split classroom where they connect via Skype, celebrate holidays, and share information about hobbies and day-to-day life.
Next year People 2 People is launching an education delegation program in which educators from Yokneam will “bring the education system in Israel to Atlanta,” Ben Shushan said.
The following year Atlanta schoolteachers will travel to Israel to expose Israeli students and teachers to the American education system.
People 2 People is also bringing musicians to play in the 2018 Atlanta Jewish Music Festival. Such programming is a response to people who live in Atlanta and Yokneam.
There’s a feeling of separation between Diaspora Jews and Israel, especially among the young, Malka said.
“For us, bringing people on their own to experience Israel is very important,” Malka said. “All efforts together are giving a response to the challenge.”
To combat the trend of disinterest or distancing between American Jews and Israel, the Jewish Agency launched Onward Israel as a part of People 2 People. The initiative brings college students on Birthright Israel to Yokneam and Megiddo.
Ben Shushan said the initiative is important because it targets the age group that needs Israel engagement the most.
“I think the age of young adults is when you see the distancing from both sides, Israelis from Americans and Americans from Israel,” Ben Shushan said. “In Israel, they don’t understand the lives of Jews in the States, and young adults in the States have a disconnection with Israel because it’s such a controversial topic.”
Ben Shushan is happy to bring American young adults to Israel because they often serve as ambassadors by bridging the gap between reality and media reports. For Partnership2gether, sharing a different side of Israel is important because it shows that Israelis can live with controversies.
“People criticize Israel all over the world. Even Israelis criticize Israel,” Ben Shushan said. “But when people come here to Yokneam, the highlight is the hospitality because this is the time when connections are made and the real conversation starts.”