Philadelphia Counts Plenty of Supporters Just Outside of Gaza Region

Participants in the May 18 Bucks County Jewish Coalition “Spices of Israel” program.

Less than 10 miles from Gaza, there is ardent praise for Philadelphia: The residents of Netivot and the surrounding district of Sdot Negev have long been enjoying their partnership with the City of Brotherly Love.

The relationship, which was created about 20 years ago through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether (P2G) program, was on full display locally when a delegation made a trek for presentations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s headquarters.

Moti Edri, a resident of Sdot Negev and member of the P2G steering committee, joined the committee members from both Israel and the U.S. in Philadelphia from May 14 to 18.

He noted that Netivot, with a population of roughly 30,000, and the Sdot Negev Regional Council, which counts about 40,000, offer a version of Jewish life markedly different from life in Philadelphia.

Edri also touched upon the cultural differences between the communities.

“The understanding of philanthropy and lay leadership are different,” he said. “The political structure is different. In Israel, the national and local governments are involved in every aspect of life.”

The P2G committee discussed funding problems related to the social differences in their countries.

In Israel, fundraising for matters other than health and synagogue life is met with resistance from citizens. Mayors also discourage efforts, often perceived to mean the government does not adequately provide for its citizens.

“It helps us do what the government doesn’t know how to do,” Edri said of the Jewish Federation’s involvement. He cited programs that provide early education for children with disabilities, and whose model, he noted, was being adopted across Israel.

The Jewish Federation allocates more than $200,000 to programs in the cities. The effect of those programs, including a robotics lab, art programs, theater instruction and youth groups, is “really important,” said Philadelphia’s David Gold, who chairs the committee.

Additionally, the Jewish Federation dedicates money to the Kaiserman Family Ethiopian Cultural Center, whose constituents often made aliyah through Operation Moses and Operation Desert Storm.

“Unfortunately, it’s also necessary to help with mobile bomb shelters,” Gold said, acknowledging the region’s frequent experience as a target of rocket strikes from Gaza.

Although the Jewish Federation provides the bulk of funds, committee members were quick to point out that the relationship is not paternalistic.  

A student in the Sdot Negev STEAM lab sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. | Photos provided by Beth Razin

Previous collaborations between both sides of the partnership include a cookbook with recipes from both Israel and the U.S. and frequent exchanges of students across the Atlantic Ocean.

“Every time we visit [Netivot-Sdot Negev], it’s like visiting a second family,” Gold added.

The region is experiencing a boom in population, which presents both opportunities and challenges for the partnership. A few years ago, the Israelis remembered, everyone in Netivot-Sdot Negev knew about P2G.

Now, as new buildings shoot up throughout the region, an increasing amount of Israelis are moving to Netivot and Sdot Negev, many of whom are unaware of the partnership.

The lack of awareness afflicts the Philadelphia side of the partnership, too, Gold noted.

“My cousins used to say, ‘What are you going to Netivot for?’”

As the cities develop, with nightclubs and a military base among recently constructed edifices, that question becomes less relevant.

Despite an influx of new residents, the region remains religious.

“We are an Orthodox community, a religious community. What we know is very homogenous,” Reuven Fenish, of Netivot, said.

The group’s visit to Rodeph Shalom Congregation on May 17 raised interesting questions

for the Israelis, who were intrigued by Judaism’s Reform movement.

“We got to learn and were exposed to communities different from Netivot. In the beginning, the different streams [of Judaism] threatened us, but then, we connected to people and got beyond the barrier,” Fenish said.  

Such exchange of culture is the partnership’s goal, Gold said. P2G aims to alternate yearly visits to Israel and the U.S. to bolster understanding of each other’s culture.

The committee rousingly affirmed the success of P2G in both Israel and the U.S.

“We’re doing great work with limited resources,” Gold said.


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