JCF, Israeli mayors plan for Upper Galilee growth

"We wanted to bring the mayors together in an intimate environment for the first time, where the everyday political battles which get in the way of achieving a common vision can be hammered out," said JCF overseas committee volunteer Debra Pell, who divides her time between JCF activities in Israel and her home in San Francisco.

"What happened after we meditated together and did yoga together — which is rather unusual for these five macho mayors — is that it shifted the kind of conversation we were going to have. They began to talk about what projects they wanted to do together. And they needed the diaspora's involvement as a catalyst for their work."

The effort is Partnership 2000, a regional economic development program that pairs volunteers from the S.F.-based JCF with five diverse communities near Israel's troubled Lebanon border, an economically depressed region of about 60,000 people, regularly under assault by Katyusha rockets from the border.

The partnership pairs the federation with five communities, including its longtime Upper Galilee partnership town Kiryat Shmona. It goes far beyond the scope of the already existing Amuta, or Israeli volunteer effort, by developing a regional plan for the larger Galilee region.

Partnership 2000 will provide $800,000 in United Jewish Appeal funding to the region this year from JCF and diaspora communities throughout North America. This augments the more than $5 million already slated to be sent overseas by the JCF through UJA as well as more than $500,000 for JCF's own projects in Israel.

The countrywide Partnership 2000 program pairs 28 regions in Israel with more than 90 U.S. federations and is a joint program of UJA, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency for Israel, together with United Israel Appeal.

Partnership 2000's goal is to provide people-to-people resources that can turn the Upper Galilee into a major tourist area, enrich arts and culture with a Tanglewood-style festival center, transform Kiryat Shmona's 5,000-student Tel-Hai college into a university and lure high-tech industry to the region.

"We began to realize that this place was not just Kiryat Shmona and not just the kibbutzim," said Pell. "But there were five communities facing many of the same economic, social and political issues in the sense of living on the confrontation line. Despite their differences, none of them would flourish unless they were unified."

Mayor Aharon Valency of the Upper Galilee Regional Council, one of the five mayors, agreed.

"These are issues which none of us can solve alone, but which must be addressed on a regional level," said the mayor, who represents some 30 kibbutzim in the region.

Joelle Steefel, chair of the JCF's overseas committee and its Partnership 2000 subcommittee, said: "What we get back is joint projects and efforts at building Jewish identity, which is as important for Israel as it is for us."

The effort, he added, " reminds Israeli Jews that there are many ways to fight for Jewish survival and Jewish community."

Through the Partnership 2000 program, lay leaders from the JCF community and their Israeli colleagues travel to the Upper Galilee, study the region's needs and determine where assistance is needed.

Pell said that "the diaspora is the outside unifying force, the objective neutral party bringing [five formerly disparate communities] together" to achieve those goals.

The largest, Kiryat Shmona, with 22,000 native Israelis as well as 4,000 ex-Soviet emigres, has the most serious economic problems in the region. A second area within the region, represented by Valency, is made up of kibbutzim with 16,000 people. Another 5,000 to 6,000 live on 13 moshavim, or collective farms.

Metulla, a town of 1,400 residents, sits at the tip of the Lebanese and Syrian border. The wealthiest area in the region, it has a Swiss Alps ambiance and attracts tourists.

The fifth community, Yosed Hama'ala, with about 200 families, was founded in the 1800s and is an Israeli version of Williamsburg, Va., with old homes open to the public.

Agreeing to focus on Kiryat Shmona first, the mayors agreed to bring in top professionals, one in the arts and another in economic development. By developing cultural attractions and luring high-tech industry, Valency said the hope is that "our children, who now move to Tel Aviv to find high-level jobs in their fields, will be able to stay in the region and our population will grow and be strengthened."

The Bay Area can become a major resource, Pell said.

"We're hoping to create an economic development corporation and begin to not only bring philanthropy to the region, but also to bring real investment — bringing the expertise that exists in our region, Silicon Valley. We also want to create a living bridge in areas of art and culture between our two communities.

"What we're beginning to find is arenas in which we can work together. What Israel is saying is: We need your money; but more than we need your money, we need you. We need your brain power."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].