By MELINDA BERMAN
This year, JUF's Partnership Together (P2G) celebrates 20 years of partnership with the Israeli communities of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir. Over the past two 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