Celebrating 20 Years with Beit Shean
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Jewish Federation of Cleveland, sister city Beit Shean celebrate 20-year anniversary
Article reprinted with permission from Cleveland Jewish News
By Kristen Mott
In 1995, a small group of people associated with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland went on a scouting mission to Israel.
That weeklong trip turned into a 20-year partnership with Beit Shean and Valley of Springs, resulting in numerous new programs and initiatives and impacting thousands of people.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of the partnership, the Federation will host a celebration at 7 p.m. March 30 at the Mandel Jewish Community Center. The event will bring together individuals from Cleveland and Beit Shean and highlight successes from the last two decades.
The idea to create relationships with a sister city in Israel came from the Jewish Agency for Israel. When the Federation learned about the concept, it decided to participate, according to Stephen H. Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
About three different locations – all on the periphery of Israel – were visited during the Federation’s scouting mission. Beit Shean was ultimately selected as Cleveland’s sister city.
“We thought about which place would have an attraction for people from Cleveland. The archeological site had begun to be developed there and it had a very grand Roman amphitheater, so we thought that would be a special attraction,” Hoffman said.
“We also liked the people there and we were very impressed with some of the elected leadership at the time. Lastly, the development of the city and the region was challenging. We thought that we had some experience that could be a benefit to them.”
The partnership between the Federation and Beit Shean and Valley of Springs, Israel, was founded in 1996. Valley of Springs is a regional district that encompasses most of the settlements in the Beit Shean Valley, including about 16 kibbutzim and six moshavim. The city of Beit Shean lies in the center of the territory and operates as an independent municipality.
The goal of the partnership today is the same as it was 20 years ago, Hoffman said.
“At the time of the founding of the project, The Jewish Agency was trying to engage local governments, local citizens, the national Israeli government and the federations in a multi-tiered partnership so that all would work together to advance the development of these communities in the periphery of Israel,” Hoffman said.
Ilanit Gerblich Kalir, managing director of international operations at the Federation, said the partnership has largely focused on grassroots community development and training citizens.
“The primary focus of our work has been to help improve the quality of people’s lives by empowering individuals to take responsibility for their surroundings and educate individuals on really how much capacity they have to make a difference,” she said.
With the foundation laid for the partnership, community members and volunteers helped the relationship grow and thrive.
Two people in particular – Robert “Bobby” Goldberg, past chair of the Federation, and the late Arthur “Art” Naparstek, a professor of social work and former dean of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University – have been recognized for the roles they played in fleshing out the partnership.
“I would give all the early credit to Art Naparstek and Bobby Goldberg, both of whom were recognized for their efforts by being named honorary citizens of Beit Shean,” Hoffman said.
Naparstek used his expertise in community development and public housing to develop strategies that were used in building up Beit Shean and the surrounding region.
“Art was constantly trying to create reasons for the leaders of the city and the region to work together for the enhancement of everyone who lived there through cooperation,” Hoffman said.
Goldberg, who served as the first chair of the Federation’s Beit Shean subcommittee, frequently accompanied Naparstek on his trips to Israel.
“Bobby has a terrific way with people and he’s genuinely devoted to Israel and to his people,” Hoffman said. “He was genuinely devoted to the development of Beit Shean. He spent a lot of time there and has personal friends there.”
Goldberg, who went on the scouting mission in 1995, said one of his proudest accomplishments of the partnership was getting Beit Shean and the regional council to work together cohesively.
“When we first got there, the city of Beit Shean was working by itself and the regional council was working by itself. To me, the number one accomplishment was we now have the city of Beit Shean and the regional council working together,” Goldberg said.
The partnership also has helped improve international relations. Beit Shean borders on Jordan to the east and the Palestinian Authority to the south. By creating connections with farmers in Jordan, the partnership has proved a way to enhance diplomatic relations.
“At one time we had a reunion. Soldiers who fought in the Six-Day War from Jordan came to Beit Shean and met with Israeli soldiers who fought in the Six-Day War. We brought them all together in one room for a dinner and it was a very friendly atmosphere,” Goldberg recalled.
“The partnership helps bring the people together. If you can bring the people together, then you can have a little peace together.”
Over the last two decades, the Federation’s partnership with Beit Shean and Valley of Springs has resulted in multiple programs and initiatives. One such initiative was founding a chapter in Beit Shean for HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir and partnering it with the Cleveland HaZamir chapter.
Francine Gordon has been a strong supporter of HaZamir Cleveland and helped found the chapter in Beit Shean in 2013. HaZamir is a program of the Zamir Choral Foundation in New York City and provides Jewish teenagers with a high-level choral experience.
Gordon became a volunteer with the Federation more than 20 years ago after her seven-year term on the cabinet for the United Jewish Appeal came to an end. She worked alongside Goldberg and Naparstek and helped build up various programs through the partnership. She also served as the third chair of the Federation’s Beit Shean subcommittee.
“I knew that we were changing how Clevelanders would experience Israel and doing it in part of the country that was kind of remote but had great potential,” Gordon said.
Having sung in a Jewish choir growing up, Gordon became involved with Cleveland HaZamir when the chapter was founded in 2006. When she learned that Matthew Lazar, the founder and director of the Zamir Choral Foundation, wanted to expand the HaZamir chapters, Gordon approached the former mayor of Beit Shean and asked about creating a partnership.
“Both of these groups of young people are learning the same songs, the same melodies and the same texts,” she said. “They come to Cleveland, they work together and then they travel together to New York City for the big festival and sing together at Carnegie Hall.
“It’s an incredible encounter, a great learning experience and we’re making Jewish memories that will impact these young people for decades.”
Gordon noted that Cleveland was the first to build on the partnership platform and that other HaZamir chapters have since followed suit. She believes the program helps grow the community both in Cleveland and in Israel.
“I’m so invested in these kids because I think what we’re doing there is so unique,” Gordon said. “Who would’ve thought 20 years ago that we would take kids from Beit Shean and put them on a stage at Carnegie Hall? We’ve got a lot to share, and music does it so phenomenally.”
The partnership with Beit Shean has created connections with the older population as well.
The Federation’s Volunteer Beit Shean program targets early retirees and encourages them to spend two weeks volunteering in Beit Shean.
Barbara Leukart, the current chair of the Federation’s Beit Shean subcommittee, decided to participate in the program after she retired from her law practice. She spent two weeks in February 2014 volunteering at the Eden Research Farm in Beit Shean.
“I had kind of a life-changing time. I just enjoyed everything I did and most importantly I enjoyed the people I met. It was a wonderful community and I felt so good about it,” Leukart said.
Following the trip, Kalir asked Leukart if she’d like to become a member of the subcommittee. She agreed, and in 2015 she was named chair.
Leukart believes the partnership has created a great interchange and strengthened ties between Cleveland and Israel.
“We’ve formed really close personal relationships with the people in Beit Shean and also people who are part of the surrounding community. We’ve gotten to know a lot of people in Beit Shean and we feel like we’ve made a big difference with helping them with economic issues and helping some of the kids who need assistance,” Leukart said.
“At the same time they’ve helped us in the sense of having a place for Clevelanders to go and feel not only welcome but like they’re very important to this town. We do a lot for them and they do a lot for us.”
These programs, along with a handful of other initiatives, have helped to develop the Beit Shean region.
“One of the trademarks of a peripheral community is people feel forgotten, people feel that they’ve disappeared and no one knows they exist,” Kalir said. “Part of the work we do in community development is to empower them and to show them that they exist and they matter.
“There’s something incredibly powerful about the concept that people thousands of miles away in Cleveland come to Israel and are specifically going to Beit Shean to meet them. This helps empower people to make them realize that they exist and matter and that someone is noticing them. Just the mere fact that people in Cleveland care empowers people in the community.”
As for the future of the partnership, Goldberg said he’d like to see more young Jewish Clevelanders become involved in the Federation and help shape the direction of the work being done in Beit Shean and Valley of Springs.
“I want to hear from the young people who aren’t involved,” he said. “Let them bring us ideas for how to strengthen our relationship with the Beit Shean region. That would be my number one goal.”
When the partnership started, there was no timeline in place for development or how quickly progress would be made, according to Hoffman. Now, two decades later, thousands of volunteers have made a difference in Beit Shean, Hoffman said, and the people living in Beit Shean and Valley of Springs have enriched the lives of numerous Clevelanders.
“When you start these types of things, you never know exactly how they’re going to go,” Hoffman said. “But if you remain committed to each other, you can overcome any speed bumps that arise in the process, and we have.
“I think as we look back after 20 years, we feel pretty good about who we are and we feel pretty good about who our family in Israel is. We consider ourselves family now. Once you’re family, you’re in for the long run.”