JUF's Partnership 25th Anniversary

P2G Blog

25 years of the Chicago Kiryat Gat Partnership

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Reunited—again and again

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This year, JUF's Partnership Together (P2G) celebrates 25 years of partnership with the Israeli communities of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir. Over the past two plus decades, thousands of Chicagoans have visited the region while on JUF missions, family trips, Shorashim Birthright Israel trips, Ta'am Yisrael, Jewish Day School class trips, Kefiada Summer Camp, and more.  

My connection to JUF's Partnership Together region in Israel started when I was in my  third grade Sunday school class at Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields. My mom was our teacher for the year, and our focus was all about Israel. We learned all about the highlights of course-Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. 

But what stands out about that year was our pen pal program. Throughout the year, we engaged in an exchange with another group of third graders over 6,000 miles away in Kiryat Gat-a city in JUF's partnership region. We would send letters back and forth, and because they didn't know English, our rabbi would help translate. We sent them gifts for Purim and Chanukah, and received Chanukiyot (menorahs) from them. And while I did not know it at the time, it was that experience that introduced me to a great friend, Karina Bakalov. 

My second interaction with Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir was in sixth grade when my family and I prepared to visit Israel to get my talit for my bat mitzvah. One of the stops on our trip was to visit the Ethiopian Absorption Center in Kiryat Gat. To my surprise, it had been arranged for two of my pen pals from that third grade class, Karina and Michal, to join us. This was our first meeting in person, and was a highlight of my trip. We all overcame some initial shyness and became fast friends. In fact, they gave up an afternoon at the mall to spend the rest of the day with me and my family volunteering at an afterschool center for at risk youth. I tried so hard to keep in touch and stay connected to my friends and Israel, but when my family and I left Kiryat Gat, I knew I might never see them again. 

Several years later, when I was in tenth grade, I was accepted into the Diller Teen Fellows program. A component of this program is working with the Diller fellows from our Partnership Together region and visiting the region in Israel. So I knew I would be going back and reconnecting with the people and places in Kiryat Gat. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that Karina, Michal, or any of my other third grade pen pals would be a part of this program. That changed in January 2015, as we prepared for the Israeli fellows to visit us here in Chicago. We all received pen pals so we could begin corresponding with the Israeli fellows. 

One of the fellows in my cohort was assigned a girl named Karina Bakalov. I quickly texted Karina, and asked her, "Are you doing the Diller program?" She responded yes, and asked me if I was as well. I was amazed. There was this girl from Israel who I have known for more than half of my life, and we both end up as Diller Teen Fellows in the same partnership.

In March, when we were paired for our home hospitality with the Israelis for their visit to Chicago, I was shocked once more. Karina not only was coming to Chicago, but would be staying at my house! I was extremely excited to see her, and we became closer than ever. I still talk with her today, and I know I always have a home in Israel. I think Hashem decided to intervene a little and make sure we stayed together.

I am so grateful for all of the hard work everyone had done to create opportunities for us to interact, both through pen pals and my visit in sixth grade. I am also grateful to Diller Teen Fellows for selecting both of us for the program and giving us yet another opportunity to connect in such a meaningful and impactful way. I hope to deepen my connection to the region when I work there next summer as a Kefiada camp counselor, and continue to find ways to visit and support Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir. The region is a great place with great people. If you have the chance to visit, I hope you will.

JUF's partnership region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir is home to immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia, India, France, Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union and more. Learn more about this dynamic connection at www.juf.org/p2g .

Melinda Berman is currently a junior at Homewood Flossmoor High School. She is a Diller Teen Fellows Alumna from Cohort 2 and has been to Israel twice.

This story originally appeared in JUF News

What Kefiada means to one American student and her Israeli host mom

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This year, JUF celebrates 25 years of partnership with our Israeli Partnership Together region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir. Over the past two plus decades, hundreds of people-to-people cultural exchanges have occurred on both sides of the ocean through our many dynamic programs. One popular program, Kefiada, brings American college students to Israel to work as counselors at an English-language summer camp for Israeli children. In addition to the formal program, some of the most meaningful connections happen on the tour bus, over falafel, and at the dinner tables of Israeli host families.

Below, an Israeli host mom-and an American college student she hosted-both share what participating in this program has meant to them. 

In a Kefiada counselor's own words...


 "Kef" in Hebrew means fun-and there is no better explanation of what fun is than Kefiada-an English-speaking camp in JUF's Israel Partnership Together region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir.

As we pulled up to the house in Israel that would become my home for the summer I worked as a counselor, I had butterflies in my stomach. The thought of living with a host family sounded cool-but what if they weren't nice? What if they didn't eat the foods I liked? What if the kids were annoying? What if… 

Those feelings instantly vanished when I walked into the most welcoming home. My host mom, Merav, her husband Ami, and their three daughters-Shira, Noa and Hila-immediately made me feel comfortable and at home. In fact, one of my favorite memories was going to a family barbecue that first week-I barely knew any Hebrew and some of the family didn't know a lot of English, but when a group of people are enjoying a beautiful day, great company and great food, the language barrier becomes a non-issue.

After a fun week of orientation with more falafel, snacks and bamba than you can imagine, we were finally ready to start camp. Teaching a new language is exciting, scary, and a lot of work. Every day at camp was different-we had swimming days, color wars, magic days, and so many more unique and fun ways that incorporated learning English.  

I was amazed at the comfort, hospitality, and pride that the people I worked with had.  Our Israeli co-counselors made sure that we had a great time, even outside of camp. Beyond teaching, as a group we saw the country together.  We took jeep rides through central Israel, we spent a night cooking poyke (Israeli stew) on the beach together and we even traveled through the Golan.  These people became my best friends and the constant support that truly helped shape the summer that I had.  

When I began the summer, I was hoping to meet some interesting people, get more teaching experience, and have some fun in Israel.  What I got was so much more.  Kefiada helped strengthen my relationship with an amazing country and multiplied the connections and friendships that I have here. Although I worked in the Kefiada program for six weeks on a volunteer basis, I feel like I was overpaid because what I gained that summer helped to shape who I am and who I hope to become.

Genna Kahn, originally from Deerfield, has expanded on her summer teaching English as a Kefiada counselor, and is now teaching English for 10 months in Rishon LeZion as an Israel Teaching Fellow.  

In a host mother's words…


In the words of an Israeli host mom…

The chance to get to know someone very well, and the opportunity to make someone part of the family, even for a brief period, was a special experience.  We are excited, every time, to get to know and to experience the students who stay with us through Kefiada. We make an effort to spend time together, to prepare good food and to make sure that everything is comfortable and pleasant. We usually try to invite everyone for a shakshuka evening - it's a sort of tradition.

To date, we have hosted nine students and they were all special and charming. We struck up wonderful relationships while they were with us, and our girls always gained a temporary big sister for the summer-which is an amazing cultural experience for them and of course helps cement their English skills far beyond what they are learning at camp. Sometimes the relationship develops into something much deeper and real, for which we are deeply thankful. My daughter, Noga, celebrated her bat mitzvah recently and we received good wishes from almost all of the girls who have stayed with us. I consider everyone we have hosted to be my adopted daughters, and am so happy to have had the opportunity to be a part of this program. I know my family has been a big winner from participating!

Merav Lipik was born and raised in Kiryat Gat, Israel. In addition to having been a host mom to nine Kefiada counselors, she is married and the mother of three daughters. 

This was originally printed in JUF News.

Celebrating 20 years of JUF’s Partnership Together

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Twenty years ago, in 1996, Chicago was one of the first diaspora communities to get involved with a new platform for connection between Israel and the diaspora: Partnership 2000. The goal? To create new connections between Israelis and worldwide Jewry -- to know one another better, work on issues of mutual concern, and allocate funds together to worthy programs.

Today, the program has taken on a new name -- Partnership Together (P2G) -- but the key goals remain the same. Jointly led by Israeli and Chicago lay leadership, JUF's programs in our Israeli partnership region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir benefit participants on both sides of the ocean, sharing resources and fostering lifelong connections.

Over the past 20 years, JUF has allocated more than $30 million toward projects that deepen our connection to this special place, supporting the region's most vulnerable members and providing joint opportunities for development and innovation.

Here are a few of the ways JUF helps out-of-the-box thinkers sustainably address social issues in our Partnership Together region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir:

SAHI Food Delivery

A truly win-win program, SAHI is a social contribution project in which at-risk teens -- many with histories of violence and vandalism -- covertly deliver weekly food packages to needy families in their area. Recruited largely by word-of-mouth, teens participate in the program willingly, encouraging their friends to join the gang of altruistic "spies" and help identify people in need in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, teens in one group will secretly deliver food packages to the families of teens in another group, who are themselves in need.

"The teens are learning to see, and to understand-and not ignore," said staff member Yohay Bohbot. "They develop real empathy."

The SAHI program has been proven to reduce school dropouts and the number of youth involved in vandalism-as well as increasing the number of teens successfully matriculating into the Israel Defense Forces. This program was a local innovation and today not only serves 120 teens in the Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir region, but has spread to 18 groups throughout Israel. 

Israel Children's Zone

Sometimes, innovation is as simple as looking at an old problem from a new angle. When regional leaders in Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir were faced with continued challenges in the public school system, they decided to take a fresh approach, creating a multi-organizational network that allowed representatives from schools, families, and various intervention programs to share perspectives
and brainstorm. 

The resulting network is now known as Israel Children's Zone (ICZ)-and is the country's flagship educational intervention program. 

"It's a holistic approach," said Amir Ellenberg, partnership co-chair. "We are essentially creating a round table around each school and each student, so that no one gets left behind."

ICZ incorporates three key existing national programs which provide a variety of interventions based on the specific needs of the students: Revadim, a school reform plan that assesses individual student difficulties and offers tailored solutions; Youth Futures, an intensive intervention program using young adult mentors who build relationships with at-risk students and families; and Etgarim, which offers outdoor adventure training and therapy to students with special needs.

Hineni Agricultural Center

A few years ago, community organizers in Kiryat Gat found they had a problem. The city had established a senior center aimed at engaging older Ethiopian immigrants-who make up a sizable part of the community-but no one was coming. 

"The programs weren't appealing culturally," explained Hineni staff member Rabbi Azaria Ftegu. "You have to engage people where they are." 

For this population, that meant farming. Thus, the Shorashim (roots) program was born-a self-sustaining experiential agricultural center where Ethiopian elders work the land, growing produce and constructing traditional mud huts ( gojos ). The center provides food for the community and, perhaps more importantly, helps participants find a renewed sense of purpose while sharing a wealth of cultural knowledge with the larger community through guided tours and workshops. 

"In Ethiopia, I was a farmer," said Shachar, a participant. "I worked the land. When I joined Hineni -- and finally could feel the land of Israel after years of living here with no direction-it was a dream. Finally, I found my destination. It gave me hope again."

Hineni also works to meet the needs of Ethiopian-Israeli women and teens through continually evolving grassroots programming.

Krembo Wings

Named after a favorite candy treat in Israel that is so delicate each one needs to be wrapped by hand, Krembo Wings is national youth movement in Israel for children with mild to severe special needs. Through individual care and partnership with the local community, each child in the program is given "wings" to experience life alongside their peers. 

Once a week, kids aged 7-21 who have special needs meet with typically developing teen volunteers who receive special training to guide their partner in games, songs, drama, and arts and crafts. In addition to the teen counselors who work directly with special needs participants, adult volunteer branch managers assist in guiding the program and implementing weekly activity plans. 

"There's something magical and special at Krembo Wings," said Alon, age 11, a participant who has autism. "No one judges you. I feel safe, I feel open… Everyone there is my friend." 


When school-based foreign language classes let out for the summer, it can be tricky to maintain newly learned language skills. That's just one of many reasons Kefiada-an English-speaking, American-style day camp for Israeli 4 th -6 th graders was born. 

In addition to helping students practice their English and gain fluency, Kefiada also serves as a bridge between Israeli students from Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir and Chicago college students who volunteer to staff the program as counselors. American staff stay with host families and gain a first-hand experience of Israeli life, all while lending their native English skills to the kids in the program, as well as Israeli junior counselors and on-site staff.

"My Kefiada experience solidified my connection to Israel," said Roxie Zeller, a Skokie native who volunteered as a counselor through Kefiada. "I now have a second home waiting for me anytime. I felt as if I were a citizen."

A Message from the 2016 Partnership Together Committee Chairs:

This year, we celebrate the 20 th anniversary of JUF's Partnership Together program, which connects the Chicago Jewish community with the region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir!   We are working to meet the needs in this developing region-which is like a home away from home in Israel for many Chicagoans-and enrich our connections through ongoing activities like our school-to-school mifgashim (exchanges), English-speaking summer camp in Israel, and Ta'am Yisrael and Birthright Israel visits in the region. 

We invite you to join us as we strengthen our connections, create opportunities, and continue to meet needs of Israel's most vulnerable. There is so much to be proud of, so much to celebrate, and so much more to do! We thank the Partnership Chairs who preceded us and the committee members who have worked so hard to help the partnership grow.

Throughout the year we will be sharing stories about the impact of our Partnership. If you have a story or a picture to share, or would like to get involved, please e-mail partnership@juf.org.

- Kim Shwachman and Amir Ellenberg 

This story originally appeared in JUF News