Philadelphia Connects with Israeli Sister Cities


On the front page of the Oct. 28, 1966 issue of the Jewish Exponent, a photo of David Ben-Gurion declaring Israel’s independence in Tel Aviv sits next to a painting of Congress declaring independence in Philadelphia.

The photos accompany an article about a change in Philadelphia’s relationship with Tel Aviv that has remained strong to this day. The day before the issue ran, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the establishment of a sister relationship between the two cities, the second such relationship Philadelphia established — the first being with Florence, Italy in 1964.

“Tel Aviv is many things to many people,” the article said. “It is a city of wide boulevards — Rothschild, Allenby and others. It is also a city of narrow streets clogged with hornblowing, stationary automobiles. It is a city of beautiful buildings; it is a city of ramshackle houses, decaying before they reach a score of years. … But Tel Aviv has another distinction; it will soon be Philadelphia’s sister city.”

Over the next several decades, Philadelphia established sister city relationships with nine other cities around the world, but the relationship with Tel Aviv stands out as one of the most robust, said Siobhán Lyons, president and CEO of Citizen Diplomacy International Philadelphia, which oversees Philadelphia’s sister city relationships. In 1997, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia made Netivot and the surrounding district of Sdot Negev a sister city of Philadelphia as well.

Participants of the 2017 men’s mission in Netivot pose for a group picture. | Photo provided

“[Tel Aviv is] one of our more active sister city relationships,” Lyons said. “That helps because there is such a strong Jewish community here, and also because there is an Israeli Chamber of Commerce and, until very recently, the Israeli consulate had an office here in Philadelphia. And until recently, of course, we had a direct flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv. That certainly helps the relationship continue because sister city relationships are not only at an official level. They are people-to-people exchanges.”

The 1966 resolution noted several similarities between the City of Brotherly Love and what is today Israel’s cultural and economic center. Besides the fact that they are the birthplaces of independence in their respective nations, they both have similar industries, are centers of art and culture and, of course, share an affinity to the contributions of Philadelphia’s Jewish community.

Today, Lyons said, the two cities continue to have commonalities and provide opportunities for each other. Philadelphia, for example, can glean a great deal from the innovation and high-tech industry of Tel Aviv. They are both open-minded cities as well, evident in Tel Aviv’s reputation as an LGBT-friendly city.

The strength of this relationship can be seen through the delegations that shuttle between them. Over the past few years, for example, delegations from Tel Aviv have come to Philadelphia to learn more about Independence Hall and about how to increase tourism to historical sites, Lyons said.

Programming over the past five decades has changed, though the goals of learning from the other and strengthening the relationship have stayed the same. That programming has included exchanges of best practices and two missions led by former Mayor Michael Nutter to promote trade between the cities. There are also plans to launch a new high school exchange program with a school in Tel Aviv.

“We are home to one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States,” Lyons said. “We have a very strong Jewish community. Those are the large reasons for why the relationship was created.”

About an hour’s drive south of Tel Aviv, and just 10 miles away from Gaza, sits another of Philadelphia’s sister cities — Netivot and Sdot Negev, an area of about 40,000 people.

About 20 years ago, the Jewish Federation decided to participate in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether program, which connects Jewish communities around the world to communities on Israel’s periphery.

“We had a group of Philadelphians who went to Israel and visited a few places, and they really made a connection with the people in Netivot and Sdot Negev,” said Beth Razin, senior manager of community engagement at the Jewish Federation. “We’ve had a really successful 20-plus years working together.”

Over those two decades, the Jewish Federation has supported education, cultural entrepreneurship and creative and healthy placemaking in Netivot and Sdot Negev. This has included programs to emphasize STEAM education, enhance small business skills and raise the quality of life. The partnership has resulted in the construction of the Kaiserman Family Spiritual Center, the Tanenbaum Music Conservatory and the Robert Saligman Early Childhood Development Center.

Because of the proximity to Gaza, security also has been a focus. The Jewish Federation has helped refurbish bomb shelters, provide needed supplies and establish a program to train teenagers to help out in times of crisis.

The Jewish Federation sends regular missions to the area, where participants get an appreciation for the region’s unique security needs, as well as the opportunity to bond with locals. Residents of Netivot and Sdot Negev also visit Philadelphia. In 2013, for instance, the Tavlinim group, a catering company supported by Partnership2Gether, visited Philadelphia to put on culinary demonstrations.

“We’ve really created programming that has been copied by other federations in their communities, which is a real compliment to what we’ve been able to do,” said David Gold, Philadelphia chair of the Partnership2Gether committee.

“The partnership model really grew out of the idea that we should work together to see what we can do together,” Razin said. “The Israeli community are partners. They want to do more projects on our side, to do more about education and Jewish identity building. They see themselves as being able to offer those kinds of projects.”

Right now, for example, there is an art installation called “Art from the Negev” making its way through the Philadelphia area. Its two artists, Simcha Even-Haim and Yafa Dadon, hail from Sdot Negev and Netivot, respectively.

“We can share and learn from each other and help each other as communities,” Razin said. “[It’s] what’s behind the idea of partnership.” 

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