Making an “Old Tool” Shiny and New

by Jeff Finkelstein

Whether you’re a relative newcomer to financial resource development in the Jewish world or a seasoned veteran, you know this much: Israel provides among the most compelling cases for giving that we’ve got. Just look at the millions of dollars that have poured in whenever the Jewish state has been besieged by her treacherous neighbors calling for her demise.

Traditionally, Israel has pulled at our heartstrings. From her inception as the fulfillment of an age-old promise to the Jewish People, to the fight for her very life just hours after declaring independence, to her unwavering welcome of immigrants seeking refuge (who often come bearing nothing but their determination to make a better life for their families), Israel has demonstrated financial need that has resonated far and wide – and for decades.

But today’s Jews must connect with Israel in new, creative and tangible ways. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) figured that out a long time ago and, thus, some 15 years ago launched Partnership 2000 (P2K), a sister-city-like project that matched Diaspora Jewish communities with cities in Israel to work cooperatively on projects that would benefit all the partners, Israeli and Diaspora. Last year P2K was re-branded as Partnership2Gether (P2G), with a new operational structure to engage more volunteers to work in targeted areas of the operation.

P2G’s re-branding and new structure are not vital to this discussion. What is vital is the potential for bringing Israel to center stage once again as a case for giving.

How, then, do we represent the needs as immediate and pressing?

This was the question posed to volunteer leadership who planned the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s recent Centennial Mega Mission to Israel. How to ensure that close to 300 participants would come away connected to Israel – and with an understanding of the modern relationship we have with the Jewish state? How to demonstrate that today’s needs, while they may differ significantly from those of the past, are equally critical and urgent?

And, as presented time and time again in this venue, those needs – very often centering on Jewish continuity – are urgent.

Wisely, our Mission leadership was all too aware of this. They committed to spending two full days of our eight days on the ground in our Partnership2Gether region, the city of Karmiel and the surrounding Misgav region. With the need to experience Masada, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Federation-supported sites as part of the itinerary, devoting two days to Karmiel-Misgav was a major commitment.

And It was a well-conceived and, ultimately, invaluable investment – for both the short and long term.

P2G is a major focus for the Pittsburgh Federation and a significant recipient of our Campaign dollars. We have found the project to be tremendously successful in fostering connectedness to Israel and greater understanding of Israel and Israel-related issues. But we take the partnership one step further: based on our close relationship with our partner communities, we are keenly aware of human needs in our partner region, thus we earmark a generous portion of our overseas allocations to programs in that area.

Our connection – and our impact – is, therefore, two-fold. Not only do we strengthen our partnership region through P2G programs that enable us to participate directly in the work, but also by supporting services that meet needs among the region’s residents. Such human service programs were prominently showcased to Centennial Mission participants, whose two-day whirlwind visit to the Galilee included stops at the Hand in Hand School, an integrated Jewish-Arab school to promote co-existence; Kishorit, a collective for individuals with special needs who operate several thriving industries like a winery and a bakery; and Kibbutz Eshbal, an educational/vocational program for at-risk youth.

A key component of the Mission was an innovative project that advanced the ultimate goal of the Partnership by creating enduring relationships between Pittsburgh Jews and Israelis in the region. Called People Mapping, the initiative involved surveying Mission participants and Karmiel-Misgav residents regarding their backgrounds, family make-up and interests and matching Americans and Israelis based on their commonalities for the duration of our stay in the region.

In addition to joining with the Mission for festive meals, many of the Israelis also joined with their American counterparts for site visits in the region, to ride on the P2K Bike Trail (a product of the Pittsburgh-Israeli partnership developed to build the region through increased tourism) and to participate in a flash mob in the center of Karmiel.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. By visiting the projects and sites that evolved from the P2G partnership, Pittsburghers gained insight into the program’s impact. By talking one- on-one with like-minded Israelis, they gained an appreciation for the realities of living in Israel – the joys and the frustrations.

Most importantly, they can now envision Israel, not just as a nation, but as a People to whom they can relate. Israel is now home. Israelis are now family. And who doesn’t seek to keep his home secure and his family safe and healthy?

One Mission participant summed up the experience of many when he reflected on his People Mapping match and remarked that his new family in Israel is “a magnet drawing us back to Israel and Misgav.” Such strong feelings of connectedness can’t help but engender care and concern for people. And those feelings are at the core of any case for giving.

Jeff Finkelstein is the President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.