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July 16, 2018 12:10 pm

The Integration Between Israeli and American Jews in New Jersey

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Jordan Shenker, CEO of the Kaplen JCC and Aya Shechter, IAC’s New Jersey Regional Director. Photo: provided.

JNS.orgRather than 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, New Jersey-based Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, she says, lends the program added legitimacy and strength.

“It appears 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. Under the agreement, 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.

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As Shechter prepares to leave New Jersey 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 a 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 the Kaplen JCC is a local organization that prioritizes the specific needs of her Israeli-American family. She says that 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 toward 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 make a presentation 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 — because they don’t have a significant presence at his Reform congregation. At the same time, the collaborative JCC-IAC program introduced the Shavuot night of learning to Israeli-Americans who, if they come from secular backgrounds, don’t necessarily know about that tradition.

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 — have joined the Kaplen JCC’s board; one example is Dan Oelsner.
  • Members of the IAC’s New Jersey Regional Council, like Eyal Yechezkel, 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 JCC’s official Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.
  • Israelis are beginning to become donors in the local Jewish community, after they were previously unengaged in philanthropy. They’ve become 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 just how much 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 such as Tammy Levi, Arielle Elad, and Iris Heyman.

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