For more than 20 years, Tucson’s Israel Center has built living bridges to Israel

The Israel Center has surpassed all our expectations, in terms of creating a connection between Tucsonans and Israel,” says Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona President and CEO Stuart Mellan. The Israel Center began as a way to bring the cultural richness of Israel to Arizona and engage the local community to build a living bridge to Israel.

Those were lofty goals when Diane and Ron Weintraub took the helm as its founding chairs back in 1997. “The center has been a gift to the Tucson community,” says Jewish Community Center President and CEO Todd Rockoff. The center is a partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, under the founders’ continued guidance and the auspices of the JFSA and JCC.

The Weintraubs have deep family ties with Israel, with numerous family members having made aliyah, including their late daughter Beth in 1986. They have four Israeli grandchildren and have made scores of trips to Israel over the years. In 2011, a year after Beth’s death from cancer, they solidified their connection to her adopted homeland by endowing the center now known as Weintraub Israel Center

The center continues to strengthen the community’s connection with Israel, its people and history, through educational experiences, advocacy and outreach. But the real impact comes from the people-to-people connections created, with programming as the platform, says Mellan. “At the center of it all are the WIC shlichim (emissaries),” who serve as the center’s directors.

Each of six shlichim selected to direct the Israel Center over the past two decades was carefully chosen, with direction from the founders. Oshrat Barel was the center’s most recent shlicha (female emissary). In March, she transitioned to vice president of JFSA’s community relations department. “I hope I helped with the important work of building living bridges and that I helped creating a variety of ways to explore and connect to Israel,” says Barel.

Amir Eden replaces Barel as the first center director who is not a shaliach (male emissary). A dual citizen, Eden brings with him a strong background in security, education and community building. Following military service and marriage in Israel, he completed his undergraduate and graduate education in the United States. He previously worked in Florida, San Francisco, Scottsdale and, most recently, Las Vegas.

“Thinking outside the box is in my DNA,” said Eden, “but, I know how important buy-in is.” His vision of his task is to build bridges through encounters with Americans and Israelis, emphasizing the importance of teamwork. “The key is people-to-people education. Education creates new opportunities for learning, to inspire and empower natural and new partners.”

WIC programs encompass three cornerstone projects. The Israel Education program, chaired by David Graizbord, uses multiple paths to educate the Jewish and Tucson community about Israel, providing a multi-faceted, realistic, and non-polemical view of Israel beyond the headlines. The annual Israel Experience Trip, launched in 2016, is part of this program. The WIC and JFSA, along with area synagogues and organizations, also host an annual Israel festival. This year, Israel@70 celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s 70th Independence Day, on Sunday, April 22.

The Israel Action Network, in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, counters assaults made on Israel’s legitimacy. Bobby Present chairs this program to build strong relationships with people of faith, human rights advocates, political and civic leaders, and friends and neighbors in the community. The final cornerstone is Partnership2Gether. (See related story).

Steve Caine and Jeff Artzi serve as the WIC co-chairs. The lay leader committee includes Asher Amar, Ray Carroll, Rebecca Crow, Goggy Davidowitz, Larry Gellman, Graizbord, Present, Naomi Weiner, John Winchester, the co-founders, and Steve Weintraub, a former co-chair.

Beyond programming, personal relationships emerge, says Mellan. He again credits the shlichim and their entire families for the relationships they create that broaden and deepen the impact of their work at the WIC. “Personal relationships have emerged literally for thousands of Tucsonans,” he adds.

He illustrates his point by describing a local father taking his young son to Israel, expecting he’d want to visit the Western Wall. Instead, the child wanted to visit a friend he’d made through the Partnership2Gether school twinning program, in a partnership village. Mellan calls that kind of personal relationship the real end product the WIC achieves. Programming is integral in furthering that living bridge, adds Rockoff.

For the WIC’s future, co-founder Ron Weintraub sees a positive continuation of the progress he describes as “more successful than we ever dreamed it could be.” We never know what the future will bring, he says, noting that there were no social media platforms when the center started. “We’ve used social media a lot between our communities here and in Israel.” He describes a lifelong connection made between a Tucson artist and an Israeli artist, facilitated on a center-sponsored trip. “They’ve become life-long friends and business partners, working and selling their work together around the world,” he says. That’s a concrete example of building those living bridges. “The number of adults and children we’ve touched both in the U. S. and Israel is very high for a community this size,” he concludes, smiling.