Ron and Diane Weintraub, who helped found Tucson’s Israel Center, have Israeli connections that run deep. Long before their daughter Beth made aliyah in 1986 with her future husband and gave them four Israeli grandchildren, Ron had relatives in Israel, including an aunt from Cleveland who made aliyah in 1938 and cousins who made aliyah from Argentina. The Weintraubs are among the founding members of the Tucson chapter of Parents of North American Israelis. Over the years, they’ve visited the Jewish state upward of 50 times.
Now, a year after their daughter’s death from cancer, they’ve made their connection to her adopted homeland permanent by endowing the Israel Center, which will be known as the Weintraub Israel Center.
“For those of us who were alive before, during and after the second World War, who saw the problems for people when there was no place to go,” Israel’s importance is indelible, says Ron, who adds that “the attachment between the Jewish people in the Diaspora to their religion is enhanced by their ability to learn about and visit and know Israel.”
The Israel Center has given Tucson “wonderful programs by Israelis and wonderful bonding by people in the community” with Israel, augmented by the active participation of Israelis living in Tucson, says Diane.
The idea of developing closer ties between Tucson and Israel, says Ron, arose at a brainstorming session during a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona board retreat in the spring of 1996. Stuart Mellan, who’d recently been hired as the JFSA’s president and CEO, knew of other cities that had Israel Centers with a shaliach (Hebrew for “emissary”) from Israel and suggested Tucson develop a similar program, to be co-managed by the Federation and the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
The Weintraubs signed on as the first chairs of the Israel Center and went to Israel with Mellan to interview potential shlichim. Yoram Posklinsky, Tucson’s first shaliach, arrived in the summer of 1997; he has been followed by four other shlichim: Yizhar Hess, Danny Bobman, Moshe Babel-Pour and now Guy Gelbart, who arrived in August. Diane went to Israel to interview each set of candidates with either Mellan or Ken Light, president and CEO of the JCC; Ron took part in several of those trips.
“Shlichim have been a professional voice for Israel in Tucson, and they’ve appeared on many stages, including the university and churches and Jewish organizations, to answer questions about what’s happening in current events as well as giving the history of Israel,” says Ron. Tucson’s shlichim have also taught at Hebrew High, helped the Federation and other groups organize missions to Israel, and opened their homes for holiday celebrations, he notes.
“It’s a pretty big job description,” says Ron. The most high-profile Israel Center program is the annual Israel Festival, which has drawn crowds of 7,000 or more to the JCC campus. Another highlight is the Heartbeat of Israel series, which brings Israeli performers and lecturers to Tucson.
The families of the shlichim are also a key part of the program — so much so, says Mellan, that the hiring process focuses on the whole family. Spouses have taught at Tucson Hebrew Academy and the University of Arizona; shlichim’s children have attended THA and the JCC’s preschool. Inbal Gelbart is making a mark as the only woman in the JCC’s basketball league, notes Ron.
Tucson also has a wonderful reputation within Israel’s shaliach program, says Ron, with all of our shlichim choosing to extend their two-year contracts for at least one additional year.
“The various shlichim that we’ve had over the years have all been top-notch,” says the JCC’s Light, who credits the Weintraubs’ involvement in the interview process, as well as their financial support. “The fact that they’ve endowed this Israel Center … is phenomenal and really signals that it’ll be in the community forever, or for the foreseeable future anyway.”
Ron notes that the endowment is the first under the aegis of the new Areivim program at the Jewish Community Foundation, which is helping a variety of community organizations “educate their supporters about the value of permanently endowing something.”
The Israel Center and the Weintraubs have also been intertwined with the TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle) program of Partnership 2000, which pairs North American federations with communities in Israel.
Tucson provides financial aid for its Israeli partnership community through TIPS, and the Weintraubs have been generous in supporting projects “over and above” the regular TIPS funding, says Gelbart. But it’s not a one-way street, he says. “The Israel Center has a significant role not only connecting the Tucson community with Israel, but helping the Tucson Jewish community maintain its Jewish identity with Israel in its heart,” says Gelbart. “This is extremely important, especially when you look at the next generation.”
For Mellan, the Israel Center is one of the programs he points to with great pride in reflecting on his 15 years thus far with the Federation.
“I really believe that the Israel Center has transformed the consciousness around Israel for our Jewish community,” he says. “It’s brought Israel to life every month of the year.”