Twin Cities and Peoplehood
Wed, 10/20/2010
Staff Writer
PHOTO BY DAN LENCHNER. Jerusalem, 2001. <danlenchnerphotography.com>
PHOTO BY DAN LENCHNER. Jerusalem, 2001. <danlenchnerphotography.com>

When two young Jews were shot dead at a gay club in Israel last summer, New York’s gay Jewish community responded immediately. The West Village congregation for gay Jews, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, reached out to friends they made in Israel through a city-to-city partnership established 10 years ago. And within days, a group of fearful Israeli teens were in New York.

That kind of swift, visceral response would not have been possible without the city pairing, said program participants.

“It made a difference,” said Steve Fruh, a CBST member. “We would have felt for them anyway,” he added, “but because of the relationship, we felt it more closely. They were one of us.”

That is the kind of connection that all “Sister City” pairings aspire to. The concept has grown tremendously since the Cold War, when the idea of partnering cities was created as part of America’s soft diplomacy. But it has taken root within the Jewish community with particular force.

Today, Jewish federations across the country have established dozens of programs that link American Jewish communities with ones outside the country, hoping to create a stronger sense of Jewish peoplehood.

“We are trying to foster a sense of Jewish belonging,” said Anat Barber, who directs the UJA-Federation of New York’s Global Jewish Connections Initiative. “We operate under the assumption that every community has something to give, and something to learn.”

The UJA-Federation’s program has been around for 10 years, and though it has gone through several name changes, it has always done essentially the same thing: bring Jewish communities together. The program will spend $2 million this year alone to fund almost 30 programs, including the one between CBST and the Jerusalem Open House, the city’s main LGBT home.

The pairing of cities, or “twinning,” arises from an acute need, however. Not long ago, Jewish communities were defined by their insecurity, whether it was Europe during the Second World War, or Jews behind the Iron Curtain. But today, the relative safety of Jewish communities, as well as their diversity and the erosion of traditional Jewish institutions, has necessitated a new call for action.

“A real concept of peoplehood has to rely on more than external threats,” said Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department for the American Jewish Committee, and an expert on global Jewry. “That’s why the twinning process is so important,” he added. “It creates a shared experience.”

Sister city partnerships are not entirely unique. Their main goal — to foster relationships — motivates all types of programs, from traditional “pen-pal” groups, to Internet chat rooms to the “Mifgash,” the peer-to-peer component of Birthright Israel trips. But what makes sister-city programs different is that they are, at root, grounded in a distinct sense of place. They connect people defined by where they live, not just by their interests or what they like.

New York’s UJA-Federation has recently shifted its focus from the large and often impersonal idea of twinning cities per se, and turned toward pairing specific community-based groups instead. In addition to CBST’s pairing with the Jerusalem Open House, the federation also funds programs like one connecting the Suffolk Y JCC and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires.

Other programs include a trilateral pairing between the college centers, or Hillels, at Baruch College, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a university in Kiev. And in a nod to the increasing number of Jews who are not affiliated with any form of institutional life, they fund a new program called “Siach”
(Hebrew for conversation) which connects Jews in several cities whose main commitment is to social justice.

But there are still Jewish organizations outside of New York that stick to the traditional Sister City paradigm. Sister Cities International is the U.S. government’s official program pairing American cities with others throughout the world. It currently links more than 2,000 cities, with 44 pairings between American cities and Israeli ones. Increasingly, there have been three-way pairings with Arab, Israeli and American cities too.

Not surprisingly, these pairings have sometimes caused controversy. A proposal in 2004 to pair Madison, Wis., with the Palestinian city of Rafah in 2004 was defeated in a rancorous city vote. And in 2006, the proposal by Atlanta to pair with Ramallah in the West Bank, was put on hold when Hamas seized power in Gaza.

But others have been fruitful. Birmingham, Ala.; Al Karak in Jordan, and Rosh Ha’ayin, a predominantly Yemenite Jewish town just outside of Tel Aviv, is one example. The Birmingham Jewish Federation was instrumental in the pairing. They approached their city council’s official Sister City committee to ask for approval in 2005. And when a Jordanian woman on the council heard about it, she asked if the city could make it an official trilateral agreement that included Al Karak.

“We said, ‘Sure, that’d be a great idea,’” said Joyce Spielberger, the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s liaison between the city’s Jewish community and the mayor’s office. “But,” she added, “it’s not as evolved as we’d like.” There was an official trilateral ceremony at Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, but recently, Al Karak’s mayor was ousted. The Sister City committee has not yet established a relationship with the new mayor.

Still, the Birmingham mayor’s office works closely with Rosh Ha’ayin. The city has organized a public school program for seventh graders called “E-Pals,” where Alabama children, most of them not Jewish, engage in regular discussions over the Internet with Rosh Ha’ayin students. This year, the children are sharing stories about what it means to be a hero.

“Because of Facebook and Skype,” said Spielberger, “they’re able to keep in touch.”

“It’s not even a Jewish thing,” she added. “You have to understand, this is the Bible Belt,” noting that many Southern Christians have a strong affinity for the Jewish state.

When it comes to American Jewish communities “twinning” with ones in Israel, there is a new dynamic in play, too. For many years, there was a perception that Israeli Jews were central to emboldening Jewish identity in the diaspora. And because of it, Jews not living in Israel had more to gain from Israeli Jews than the other way around. But Jewish communities in America, particularly large ones like in New York, have begun to see the relationship as more mutually beneficial.

“It used to be a more paternalistic relationship,” said Barber, who heads the UJA-Federation’s partnering program. “But we now feel like that kind of approach is dated. We’ve shifted the model where no community is considered stronger or better than the other,” she said.

There are glimpses of that in the Kings Bay YM-YWHA’s connection with Holon Matnas, a community center near Tel Aviv. The program is for young professional couples, many with children, and funds a few trips between Holon and New York each year. Earlier this March, a group of 15 Jews from Kings Bay traveled to Israel to stay with specific Holon-based families. Then, later in the spring, the same group of Israelis came to New York.

Irina Olevsky, a New Yorker who went on the trip to Israel, said that it changed her view of Israelis. “Some of my stereotypes were laid to rest,” she said, noting that she thought Israelis might be particularly brusque, or hard-headed. But after spending a couple of days with the Holon couples, a Friday night Shabbat dinner, and staying overnight in their homes, her perception changed.

“When you got to experience it firsthand,” Olevsky said, “you realize that they are just as warm. They had the same concerns … And we all shared one thing: we were Jewish.”

Eric Herschthal writes about arts and culture for The Jewish Week.