In Tucson, JAFI partnership director discusses new P2G programs, Jewish unity

(L-R) Andrea Arbel, partnership director at the Jewish Agency for Israel; Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona; and Shelly Silverman, JFSA chair, at a lunch meeting in Tucson July 19 (Oshrat Barel/JFSA)

The Tucson/Kiryat Malachi/Hof Ashkelon partnership “is amazing,” says Andrea Arbel, director of the partnership unit at the Jewish Agency for Israel. “It has grown and developed over the past five years in ways, I would say, that I never dreamed of.”

Arbel spent a day in Tucson last month meeting with members of Tucson’s Partnership2Gether committee and other Jewish community leaders.

School twinning is perhaps the “most stellar” of the local partnership’s programs, last year linking students in 18 Tucson classrooms with their counterparts in Israel, and doing so “with breadth and depth,” she says. Locally, the program includes congregational schools, Tucson Hebrew Academy and the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Arbel credits local professionals, in particular Oshrat Barel, director of the Weintraub Israel Center and Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona vice president of community engagement, and Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO, with “seeing the potential of the partnership as a platform for the Tucson community to engage with Israel and with Israelis.”

Along with people-to-people programs such as school twinning, Arbel notes, Tucson continues its more traditional investment, via program grants, in Kiryat Malachi/Hof Ashkelon.

Arbel, who was born in Manhattan and grew up in New Jersey, made aliyah 31 years ago. She oversees 47 partnerships that connect Israeli communities with Jewish communities all over the world, including South Africa, Australia and Mexico, encompassing a total of 450 communities.

During her July 19 visit, she briefed Tucson leaders on three new programs that are in the pilot stage in other communities and could be adopted here. 

The first is school twinning highlighting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, for both Jewish day schools and public schools with a significant population of Jewish students.

The Jewish Agency can’t reach out to public schools with a Jewish identity program, Arbel explains, but it can with STEM education. “The rationale is that Israel is the ‘start-up nation’” and even those who don’t know much about the country are aware of its tech prowess.

It is great, she adds, that non-Jewish public school students will be involved and may end the year “with something intelligent and positive to say about Israel.”

The second program is known as “G2: The Global Intergenerational Initiative.” It is a response to the trend of grandparents living longer, staying healthier, and helping to build their grandchildren’s identity. Arbel points out that 60 percent of day school tuitions are paid by grandparents.

G2 also builds on a recent Brandeis University survey that found that what college students do Jewishly is often rooted in what they did with their grandparents. That is especially true for children raised in interfaith families, Arbel says.

People in twinned G2 communities hold monthly meetings via Skype. In between meetings, “we’re asking grandparents to do fun stuff” with their grandchildren, such as identifying a Jewish object in their home — Shabbat candlesticks, for example — then going to Google Maps to find the village the great-grandparents brought those candlesticks from. At the end of the year, all the G2 groups will go to Israel at the same time for a global Israel experience.

The third program, “248: The Community Action Network,” is based on the idea that there are 248 “doing” mitzvot (versus commandments that say “don’t do” this or that). The program pairs young professionals who have completed a Federation leadership development or similar program with their cohorts in Israel. It features an Israel trip early in the year. 

“Leading up to that trip,” says Arbel, “we want to raise their consciousness to the power of the collective, meaning that we can do more together than we can do on our own … and do that within the context of the big challenges of world Jewry.”

In Israel, participants meet some of the country’s top social entrepreneurs. They also convene for a hackathon to explore challenges to the Jewish polity “with a network mentality” and learn “ideas of doing that don’t demand infrastructure,” Arbel says. One example is “Zikaron BaSalon,” or “Memories in My Living Room,” where Holocaust survivors tell their stories in an intimate atmosphere. Started in Israel, it is now a global program.

“These new initiatives are a reflection of the reality that innovative engagement with the people of Israel is one of the most exciting aspects of our work. Just as our twinning program is now powerfully connecting over 700 young people in Tucson and Israel, these new initiatives have the potential to take our work to a new level,” says Mellan.

Before she entered the Partnership2Gether realm, Arbel served as advisor to the Jewish Agency’s director general of aliyah and absorption. Prior to that, she worked at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think-tank where she published numerous articles and books, including “Riding the Wave: The Jewish Agency’s Role in the Mass Aliyah of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.”

Her July 19 Tucson visit came just weeks after two Israeli government decisions that outraged many Jews around the world: to suspend plans for an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall and to give Israel’s Chief Rabbinate sole authority over official Jewish conversions performed in the country.

“The whole issue of the Kotel and conversion actually broke out during the Jewish Agency’s board of governors meeting,” says Arbel, who is proud that the agency responded by cancelling a June 26 dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Within days, the agency also launched a Partnership2Gether social media campaign, “#One Wall, One People.”

“The message was that [we] in P2G that work day and night to strengthen Jewish unity … are frustrated, concerned and denounce [these decisions],” she says.

The campaign went viral.

“And I’ll tell you this,” Arbel says. “In my world of partnership, the Israelis were up in arms over these decisions because they thought anything that will weaken the Jewish unity of the Jewish people, is not good. It’s simply not good.”

She emphasizes that despite its unprecedented criticism of the government, the Jewish Agency is not against the state of Israel.

“I love the state of Israel,” she says. “I may be mad as hell at the government of Israel right now … but that does not mean that you turn your back on your country, that does not mean that you turn your back on your family. You work to make change. So I’m going to work hard with my partners, in Israel, in overseas, to say as loudly as possible what we believe in.

“You stick it out and you fight for what you believe in,” she says. “And you try to effect change.”