July 25, 2024
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July 25, 2024
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A Seamless Integration Between Israeli and American Jews in New Jersey

By combining forces, the Israeli-American Council and the Kaplen JCC have been able to develop new initiatives, enhance current programs and broaden their reach.

Rather than in a classroom setting, New Jersey middle and high school students participating in the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) Eitanim entrepreneurship program get to pitch their ideas directly in a boardroom.

It’s no small distinction for Anat Katzir, an Eitanim mentor and the religious-school director at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township. The boardroom at the Tenafly-based Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, she says, lends the program added legitimacy and strength.

“It appeared as a professional, high-level program, instead of another class,” says Katzir.

Eitanim has access to the JCC’s facilities thanks to a historic partnership, launched in April 2016, in which New Jersey’s IAC Region and the Kaplen JCC entered a communal joint venture—creating unified programming and a joint financial model, with shared responsibility and vision. Aya Shechter shifted her role from director of the Israel Center to the IAC’s New Jersey regional director, while the IAC’s headquarters in the Garden State gained a new physical home in Tenafly.

As Shechter prepares to leave to join the organization’s national management team in Los Angeles, it’s the perfect time to reflect on a groundbreaking partnership model that can and should be replicated among Israeli-American communities and local Jewish institutions across the country.

By combining forces, IAC New Jersey and the Kaplen JCC have been able to develop new initiatives, enhance current programs and broaden their reach. They have infused new sources of energy and ingenuity into the state’s Jewish community, and have created seamless community integration between Israeli-born and American-born Jews in New Jersey.

“This partnership has enabled two organizations already doing fantastic work engaging New Jersey’s Israeli-American community to become even more effective,” says Jordan Shenker, CEO of the Kaplen JCC. “With our combined resources and expertise, the IAC and the JCC have nourished a vibrant center for Israeli life in our community like never before.”

For Katzir, who lives in Tenafly with her husband and two sons, it is heartening to know that in the Kaplen JCC is a local organization that prioritizes the specific needs of her Israeli-American family. She says the JCC has become much more than a destination for sports or music activities. It’s now also a place where members of her family can speak and hear Hebrew, and participate in programs geared towards their cultural interests.

“Having an Israeli element at the JCC invites Israelis to engage with Jewish life in America, and Americans to engage with programming they wouldn’t have known about,” she says. “It creates an invitation for both sides.”

Katzir explains that as a result of the IAC-JCC partnership, Temple Beth Or’s Rabbi Noah Fabricant got to present at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot program (that holiday’s customary night of learning) at the Kaplen JCC last year when he wouldn’t have otherwise engaged with Israeli-Americans, who don’t have a significant presence at his Reform congregation. At the same time, the collaborative JCC-IAC program introduces the Shavuot night of learning to Israeli-Americans who, if they come from secular backgrounds, don’t necessarily know about that tradition.

“For Israelis to hear Rabbi Fabricant’s name, to know his face, to know that he represents a movement, and to see the style he brings with him and the type of content he teaches, was a really eye-opening experience,” says Katzir.

Since its inception two years ago, the IAC-JCC partnership’s broader achievements have included:

Graduates of the IAC’s Gvanim program, which trains value-based, organizational and community-based leadership among Israeli society in the United States by developing local and national networks of social leaders who have joined the Kaplen JCC’s board, like Dan Oelsner.

Members of the IAC’s New Jersey Regional Council, like Eyal Yechezkell, who have also become JCC board members.

Organized programming has grown within New Jersey’s Israeli-born community, which has also increased its participation in broader Jewish communal programming; for example, the “Celebrate Israel” festival has become the center’s official Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.

Israelis are beginning to become donors in the local Jewish community after they were previously unengaged in philanthropy, becoming involved in JCC fundraisers such as the Rubin Run and Lavish Lunches.

In unprecedented ways, Israeli-Americans are moving from isolation to integration in America’s Jewish community. New Jersey is one of the best examples of this trend, thanks to the IAC-JCC venture, which underscores how Israeli-Americans can enrich American-Jewish life and vice versa.

The JCC’s Shenker will keep the momentum going working with the IAC’s new regional director in New Jersey, Noa Raab, and dedicated staff members Tammy Levi, Arielle Elad and Iris Heyman.

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS

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