Tucson’s Weintraub Israel Center gets first woman director

Oshrat Barel and her husband, Eli, with daughters (L-R)  Ronnie, Shira, and Yuval
Oshrat Barel and her husband, Eli, with daughters (L-R) Ronnie, Shira, and Yuval

Earlier this month, Oshrat Avitan Barel arrived in Tucson as the sixth director of the Weintraub Israel Center. The five shlichim (emissaries from Israel) who preceded her were men, making Barel the community’s first shlicha (female emissary).

“Oshrat has an outstanding background and we thought she’d do wonders for our program in Tucson,” says Diane Weintraub, founding co-chair of the WIC. “She comes with a lot of experience and a wonderful family. I know they’re going to fit in beautifully with our community.”

Barel, 39, grew up in the northern town of Beit Shean, known for its significant archeological site. She earned her bachelors’ degree in economics and management from the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and her MBA from Netanya Academic College. She worked for the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, and ran educational programs to train community leaders.

Barel has volunteered extensively with Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. She founded Roots Theater, a theater group for Ethiopian women, which earned her the President’s Prize for Volunteerism from Shimon Peres in 2012. She also volunteered with Paamonim, a nonprofit organization that helps families get out of debt.

Although she lived and studied in Tel Aviv, Barel found her way back north to Kibbutz Hamadia, not far from her birthplace in Beit Shean.

For the past five years, she served as director of the Beit Shean-Emek Hamaayanot-Cleveland Partnership2Gether. Like Tucson’s TIPS (Tucson Israel Phoenix Seattle) Partnership with Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon, this program brings together Israeli and North American communities. “I saw how the Jewish community supports Israel,” Barel said, which brought her to pursue her “Zionist dream” of bringing Israel to the North American Jewish community as a shlicha. “It was a natural development for my career,” she says.

“From my experience as a volunteer and as a partnership director, I found that Partnership2Gether is a great vehicle. It benefits both sides simultaneously and it’s important for Jewish continuity,” says Barel. She is constantly on the lookout for ways to increase the impact of the partnership programs.

When Barel was here in May, getting to know Tucson and prepare for her family’s move, Brenda Landau, JFSA vice president of community planning and Women’s Philanthropy, gave her 200 Ben’s Bells kindness coins to bring back to Israel. Barel consulted with the TIPS leadership in Kiryat Malachi and decided to distribute them to volunteer emergency response teams in the Hof Ashkelon region. “The kindness coins will follow those who give their time and energy for others, for their community and for a sense of strength and security in different villages,” said Kohi Shlomo, director of the Hof Ashkelon Resilience Center. “They give local meaning to the word ‘kindness’ due to the complexity of life in our region.”

Barel sees her stay in Tucson as an opportunity for “mutual give and take,” for both the community and her family. While she is eager to share information about Israel, she also hopes that her family will experience aspects of Judaism that they don’t see in Israel.

In addition to her community activism — both professional and volunteer — Barel is passionate about poetry. She researches and reads classic and modern Hebrew poetry. Although not yet published, she loves to write poetry as well and enjoys using it in her work.

The Barel family’s first few weeks have been focused on getting settled in Tucson, with lots of help from new friends. Barel’s husband, Eli, 41, who was also born in Beit Shean, left behind his job selling electronic sports equipment for the Israeli company Lapidot Sport. Their three daughters are adjusting to their new classrooms — Yuval, 12, and Ronnie, 9, at Tucson Hebrew Academy; and Shira, 3, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. They enjoy family time with arts and crafts activities and travel.

In light of the warm welcome they’ve received, Barel is optimistic about their stay here. “If the first 10 days are any indication of the way the Tucson Jewish community works, then I can’t wait for the next three years,” she says.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a local writer and editor. She can be reached at nancy_ozeri@yahoo.com.