By GIL HOFFMAN
The relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora used to be pretty simple: American Jews gave money and Israeli politicians spent it.
Over the past 17 years, the Jewish Agency for Israel changed the model to a “living bridge,” featuring cultural exchanges and visits that build personal relationships between partnered communities in Israel and around the world.
Now the Partnership2Gether Central Area Consortium, which connects 12 US communities with Akko and the Matte Asher Regional Council in the Western Galilee, has taken the Israel-Diaspora relationship to a new level – by making it into a work of art.
The Partnership has featured connections in the arts since it began in 1997, due to the thriving arts scenes in the American and Israeli communities and the ability of the arts to unite people in a common language. Last month, the Consortium took that approach a step further.
More than 100 people came to Israel from six Consortium communities last month for a special tour of the world-renowned Ballet Austin. The ballet performed Light, which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, at the Akko Alternative Theatre Festival, Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center, and Jerusalem’s Gerard Behar Center, the site of the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1961.
The tour was the result of a joint effort by Ballet Austin board member Stephen Adler, the Austin Jewish Federation, Partnership leaders in Israel led by philanthropist Raya Strauss Ben-Dor, and Akko Festival director Albert Ben-Shloosh. Adler had wanted to bring the long-running Light to Israel for several years but the idea never got off the ground until he became connected to the Partnership.
Adler and his wife Diane hosted Orit Katzenstein-Guri, a Partnership volunteer five years ago when she visited Austin as part of a delegation of young leaders. When they came to Israel a year later, Katzenstein-Guri hosted the Adlers and met with Partnership leaders.
“The Partnership asked what it can do for Austin, and what came to our mind was Light,” Adler said in an interview at Akko’s Ghetto Fighters museum. “We gave them a project that would be difficult to execute. We said let’s take Austinites to Israel for Light and the conversation that comes with it.”
Light began in 2005 as part of a three-month community-wide educational program in Austin on tolerance, coexistence, and the Holocaust that involved Austin city officials, its school system, theater and dance groups. The ballet has since been performed in other US cities.
“This project is so much more than a ballet,” said Austin philanthropist Tom Meredith. “It’s about engaging in a discussion on the twin dangers of hatred and indifference. It’s a moral lesson we should never lose sight of.”
While Meredith is not Jewish, he has been instrumental in expanding Holocaust education in Austin schools. He said bringing Light to Israel was a dream come true.
“Ballet is a universal language in a deeper conversation,” he said. “Project Light is a gift. If we don’t accept the gift, we miss it.”
Adler tried unsuccessfully in the past to bring Light to Israel through different American and Israel agencies, officials, and organizations. The idea only got off the ground after he was introduced to Ben-Shloosh at annual Partnership meetings in Austin.
Ben-Shloosh decided to make the ballet a centerpiece of the Akko Alternative Theatre Festival during the Sukkot holiday, and he and Strauss made connections with the other Israeli theaters. Around the performances, the Partnership built the trip to Israel, which features four days in the Western Galilee that help develop relationships between the Americans and Israelis.
“I had concerns about how the ballet would work in Israel with an Israeli audience,” Austin Federaton CEO Jay Rubin said. “Not only did it work, but the performance and the discussion afterward were especially powerful. There are sirens in the ballet to signify the Nazi invasion. In the US you understand the sirens artistically but we never hear sirens there. For people living here, it’s not foreign.”
Rubin brought a large and diverse delegation with him to Israel from Austin, including 30 dancers and production staff from the ballet. None of the dancers were Jewish.
There were also 38 people from other Consortium communities Dayton, Omaha, Des Moines, South Bend, and Louisville. More than 75 of the people on the trip were in Israel for the first time and even among veteran Israel goers, there were many who had never been to the Western Galilee.
By contrast, it was the 59th trip to the Jewish State for Jan Goldstein, the US director of the Partnership Consortium communities. Goldstein, who is from Omaha, said she was proud of the way the arts connect all the communities in the partnership.
“We are 12 communities brought together by the Partnership that have shared challenges,” she said. “Coming to Israel together gives us an opportunity to learn from each other and create wonderful relationships. I am thankful that we could travel together to our home.”
Andrea Arbel, who is the director of the Jewish Agency of Israel, Partnerships unit, said Israel experiences are stronger if they are made personal. She noted that programs like Birthright and Masa have some personal interaction with Israelis built-in but in Partnership2Gether, the time the Israelis and Americans are together is the essence.
Arbel said doing together is important for Israelis and for sustaining the Jewish people. She said it enables Israelis to discover their vital role in the Jewish people and its challenges and to discuss with their American counterparts how to help each other using their different strengths.
“Partnership2Gether is still going strong after 18 years because you don’t want to leave your family,” she said. “There is no shortcut to building the Jewish people. It has to be done one person at a time. The endeavor may be local but its impact is global.”
While the delegation was in Israel, they participated in a ceremony laying the cornerstone for the Damon Rose Partnership Center. The Center is named after a previous director, who later directed all the Partnerships in the North. Partnership friends in the US and Israel have raised nearly half the $1 million needed for the project.
Israeli philanthropist Raya Strauss Ben-Dor explained at the ceremony how Rose changed her life by getting her involved in the Partnership and teaching her the importance of the US-Israel relationship. The Central Area Consortium has been a pioneer in involving local Israeli philanthropists in fund-raising efforts.
At Strauss Ben Dor’s urging, David Laron, the CEO of Menta, the Delek chain of convenience stores, came on board as Israel chair of the Western Galilee Central Area Consortium Partnership. He said he always had tried to help his own community to leave a better world for his children but he had been unaware of the importance of the relationship with Jewish communities abroad.
“Now I am in a different place,” he said. “I have a family connection with so many people and I can’t give it up. I like doing good things with these people. Israelis by definition want to give of themselves because the concept of Kol Israel Arevim Zeh Lazeh (all Jews are accountable for one another) is part of them.”
Laron said Israelis normally give of their time and skills and Americans normally do with money. But in the Partnership, both sides learned from the good of the other.
“I and other Israelis are giving money to the US-Israel relationship via the Partnership just like the Americans, and the Americans are learning that giving of themselves means so much more,” he said.
Laron called the performance of Light in Akko and the educational project that comes with it the most important thing he has been a part of since he got involved with the partnership. His American counterpart, Zoe Riekes of Omaha, said the performance in Akko was “beshert – it was meant to be.”
Riekes, who has been involved with the Partnership since its inception, kvelled with joy over the involvement of the Israelis in making it so successful.
“We are no longer helping Israelis by building and giving money,” said Zoe Riekes, the long-time US chair of the Western Galilee Central Area partnership. “We are working together, side by side in a living bridge, fund-raising on both sides of the ocean. Israelis in our global family have stepped up to the plate and said we will work with you to strengthen the Jewish community together.”