Visionaries Delegation in Omaha

P2G Visionaries Delegation in Omaha

Pictured from left: Susan Nirens, Sis Rodan, Shelley-Anne Peleg, Noa Epstein, Uri Yirmias

Posted originally on,  14 May 2013. By Beth Cohen, Executive Director and Mary Sue Grossman, Program Coordinator, The Center for Jewish Life, The Jewish Federation of Omaha

Imagine walking into a breakfast meeting as a colleague glances down at his iPhone and says, “Oh, Conde Nast Traveler just named my hotel one of the ‘20 Best New Hotels in the World.’” Mr. Uri Yirmias, owner of the Efendi Hotel in Akko, Israel, learned of this amazing news when he was in Omaha. Uri was part of the Partnership2Gether Visionaries Delegation, and was joined by Shelley-Anne Peleg, Susan Nirens, and Sisi Rodan.These four cutting-edge visionaries are experts in their respective fields in the Western Galilee. They visited Omaha as part of a whirl-wind information exchange in three stateside Jewish communities with the goal of building mutually beneficial connections. The four visionaries were accompanied by Israeli Partnership2Gether staff member Noa Epstein- Friedman and by the stateside Arts & Community Task Force Chair Kim Goldberg of Omaha. 

“These special delegations, planned through the Partnership2Gether Arts & Community Task Force, provide an exchange of ideas,” explains Kim. “They are an opportunity to learn, grow and think beyond the local perspective to a broader, global understanding of the Jewish experience. We learn from the Israelis just as they learn from us, we empower each other. The Western Galilee and Omaha connection builds upon our best community assets, reinforces our relationships, and strengthens our personal Jewish identity.”

Arriving in the late afternoon on Sunday, April 21, the visionaries got a tour of Omaha and enjoyed gracious home hospitality with Amy and Sandy Friedman, Gloria and Howard Kaslow, Margo and Steve Riekes, and Cheryl and Gary Lerner. Monday, April 22 – the only full day in Omaha for the visitors – followed a jam-packed schedule with individualized tracks for each of the visitors.

Zoë Riekes, the Stateside Chair of our Partnership2Gether Consortium, explains, “I am so glad that Omaha has taken advantage of the many opportunities offered to us through the Partnership2Gether program. Each visit from our Israeli friends to our community strengthens the ties between us, making us a true global family.”

Uri, known for his massive grey beard and exceptional cuisine, is a chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur, hotel owner and developer. He is the co-owner of Uri Buri restaurant, the Endomela ice cream parlor and the Efendi Hotel, all in the Old City of Akko. Uri spent eight years and reportedly millions of shekels to restore two adjacent palaces in the Old City and transform them into the Efendi Hotel. In a city as unique as Akko, with an Arab population about equal in size to the Jewish population, Uri is front and center in community discussions. Although his fame in Akko is attributed to his restaurant, he uses his celebrity to benefit and strengthen his community.

Uri’s day in Omaha included a meeting with David Gilinsky at Bergman Incentives followed with a meeting with Winsley Durand at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Then Uri, Noa, Sandy, Zoë, and Beth Cohen had an amazing experience at Metro’s Culinary School, having lunch and a full tour of the facility with chef-instructor Brian O’Malley. For many years, Uri has mentored at-risk youth through apprenticeships at his restaurant. Uri was so impressed with the school he is planning to return for a two week visit in the future with the eye of developing a similar program, though on a smaller scale, in Akko. Later in the day, Uri met with Alan Potash, ADL Director, discussing issues of anti-Semitism and Israeli/Arab relations.

Susan Nirens is the Assistant Director of the non-profit organization Kivunim: New Directions. Since its inception in 2003, Kivunim has been preparing young adults with disabilities for the challenges of independent living. Today, Kivunim serves close to 200 people with creative programing in the areas of informal education, volunteering, independent living, vocational training, leisure and self-advocacy. One of Kivunim’s benchmark programs is WINGS, a two-year comprehensive program which combines Israeli national service, group living, life-skills training and academic study for physically and sensory-challenged youth aged 18-21. This unique program is also now open as an annual program for young people from the United States with sensory or physical disabilities who are interested in experiencing Israel. Susan’s position includes fund-raising, administration of the programs and social work.

Susan started her day with Karen Gustafson, Executive Director of Jewish Family Service, and Janet McCarthy, Yachad Advisor, exchanging information about their organizations.  Susan spent the majority of her day with representatives from Mosaic International, an organization with world headquarters in Omaha. Mosaic’s mission is to partner with people with intellectual disabilities to create a meaningful life in a caring community, giving a voice to their needs. Realizing more could be accomplished when partnering with like-minded organizations, Mosaic began their international work in 1994. It currently has services and programs in the United States, England, Germany, Tanzania, Romania and Norway. Members of Omaha’s Partnership2Gether committee helped to make the connection about a year ago between Kivunim and Mosaic. Susan’s trip was their first face-to-face visit, and Mosaic staff will be visiting Israel in July to further discuss possibilities for an international collaboration.

Shelley-Anne Peleg is the Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) Director of the International Conservation Center, Citta di Roma, located in the old city of Akko. Her responsibilities include establishing the center as the premier practical conservation training center in Israel. She lectures regularly at national and international academic and practical conservation conferences. Shelley-Anne is a member of the Israel National Commission to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and she is currently completing her Ph.D.

Sisi Rodan is the curator of the Treasures in the Walls Ethnographic Museum in Old Akko, located right inside of a tunnel in the Old City walls, which adds a unique atmosphere to its exhibits showcasing lifestyles from Ottoman times to the establishment of Israel. The museum, which opened in 2008, focuses on items people used in their daily lives, work and crafts in the Galilee. Treasures in the Walls preserves the heritage of the region’s inhabitants, both Arab and Jewish with each room of the exhibit space devoted to a different aspect of life.  Among the popular exhibits are a market street, an apothecary, and the workshops of a blacksmith and of a shoemaker.

Shelley-Anne and Sisi started their day together with Kenneth Bé at the Gerald Ford Conservation Center which included a tour of that amazing facility. The center houses state-of-the-art technical laboratories for the examination, evaluation, and specialized conservation treatment of for an array of materials, plus a reference library, a digital imaging lab, a microscopy laboratory, an x-radiography area, and an air abrasive room. The next stop was the Durham Museum to meet with Carrie Wieners, Curator of Exhibits and Collections, and to enjoy another fabulous behind-the-scenes experience.

Shelley later met with Erin Averett, an archaeology professor at Creighton along with several of Erin’s students. In the late afternoon, Sisi and Shelley spent time with Rami Arav and Curtis Hutt at UNO. Susan Rothholz served as escort and provided transportation for the day. Shelley and Sisi were both very excited with the contacts they made and are confident there will be future collaborative efforts from each of the groups with whom they met.

At the end of the day, the entire group attended the open house at the Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at UNO. On Wednesday morning, they had a tour of the Federation campus and met with CEO Mike Silverman. The intent of the meeting was for Mike to have the opportunity to learn more from the visionaries about Akko however Mike heard a lot about Omaha, too. As Susan explained, “This campus is the most beautiful expression of community that I have ever seen.” Uri added, “This is what community should look like. Omaha is what community should look like. This is the example for everyone.”

Mike shared with the group that “our community wants to make a difference. We want to have an impact on Jews in Israel and in Omaha.” He added, “We want every Jew to feel connected.”

Bonnie Bloch, CJL President, participated in a number of the meetings with the visionaries and also participated in the Partnership2 Gether Steering Committee meeting in Israel in January. She says, “Representing both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward in Partnership is to always be developing ways to tie our communities together in an even stronger way. Having the opportunity to go to Israel to see everything our Partnership is involved in was a great learning experience. But, having the opportunity to play a part in making these impactful, personal connections is truly amazing. Omaha should be so proud about our role to strengthen our partnering Israeli communities.”

Partnership2Gether is a program of the Center for Jewish Life promoting people-to-people relationships between Israel and communities throughout the world. Omaha is one of 12 cities in the U.S. partnering with the city of Akko and the Matte Asher region in northern Israel, sharing cultural, social, medical, educational and economic programs. For more information on Partnership, please call the Center for Jewish Life at 402.334.6445.

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