TIBERIAS, ISRAEL – If you’ve met someone from the Sovev Kinneret region of Israel, there’s a pretty good shot a decision made about 20 years ago had a lot to do with it.
Twenty years ago, regions of the United States were assigned to regions of Israel in a partnership, a kind of sister city arrangement.
Jerusalem was given New York. Tel Aviv has Chicago.
Milwaukee and Madison, along with Tulsa, Oklahoma and St. Paul, Minnesota, have the city of Tiberias and some rural area near it. The rural area is comprised of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, the Lower Galilee Regional Council and the community of Kfar Tavor. Together, this is the Sovev Kinneret region.
There have been some minor shakeups. Madison joined the regional partnership three years ago. Minneapolis was part of it but left.
The point of the program is to form personal connections. “It brings some more idea that for the Americans, Israel is not what they see on the TV,” said Anat Sharvit, director of Parternship2Gether for the Sovev Kinneret region. She works for the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“It’s a means of introductions of people to people,” said Devorah Arkind, a volunteer member of the steering committee for the Sovev Kinneret partnership ever since its inception two decades ago. “People meet people who they would never have met.”
It’s conventional wisdom that many Israelis tend to look at Judaism as either a secular or ultra-Orthodox way of life. On the other hand, Americans are more likely to see Judaism as a spectrum that includes varying levels of religious observance. Sharvit feels it’s important for Israelis to understand they have more choices. She has learned that she can “be secular and love the Jewish tradition.”
“For the Israelis this brings understanding that you can be a Jew in many different ways,” she said.
“You know I grew up as an Israeli. For me it is very easy to be a Jew in Israel,” she said, acknowledging it’s not so easy in the United States. “When you learn how much effort you have to do in order to preserve your Judaism, it brings another sense of responsibility for you guys. To be your Israel, not only for us but also for you.”
The partnership has twinning schools, where schools are paired up with one another from Israel to partnership cities in the United States. A Milwaukee Jewish Day School eighth grade trip visits Israel annually as part of a twinning arrangement.
Also annually, a teen mifgash youth delegation of teens from the region visits the Milwaukee area and the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC in Eagle River for a total of 11 days. Meanwhile, Interlaken teens visit Israel for a few weeks. They do so in the summer before 11th grade, touring and then ending up in the region. The two teen groups eventually meet up in the region.
Other programs involve professional exchanges, like a social workers mission in November and December of 2016. Attendees from the Milwaukee area visited the Jordan River Village, a retreat center for children with serious illness. They also visited with the International Center for the Study of Loss, Bereavement and Human Resilience at Haifa University.
Yet the point from the partnership’s perspective is not really what social workers or members of any other profession can learn from one another. It’s a way to form connections, Sharvit said. It’s all to “foster relationships between Milwaukee and Israel,” said Partnership2Gether coordinator Susie Rosengarten of Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Israel Center.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” said Hadar Binya, Living Bridge coordinator for Partnership2Gether in the Sovev Kinneret region. “We can find a way for you to be connected if you want.”