Group hopes to preserve beauty of northern Israel

The environment and environmental education in schools are a focus of the seven-month-old Gomeh. Another important goal is economic development, said Harel Nahmani, who initiated the project with Ziv Cohen.

"We must change things so that young people can stay here and not move to the big cities in order to make a living," Nahmani said.

A meeting with JCF volunteer Debra Pell created the impetus to move Gomeh from vision to reality. Pell, who serves on the federation's Israel and overseas committee, now lives part time in Israel and is volunteer liaison with the JCF's partner area, the northern Galilee.

"I don't know if we found Debra or she found us," Cohen said. Whichever — Pell found the group's goals were similar to the types of programs the JCF has been involved in for nearly two decades.

The JCF has worked in northern Israel since the early '80s, first through United Jewish Appeal's Project Renewal and now with Partnership 2000. In addition, more than $400,000 in direct grants from the JCF's annual campaign is allocated each year to the area for programs that improve relationships among the residents — Arab Israelis, Orthodox and secular Jews, and new emigres — and create jobs and economic enhancement.

Through Partnership 2000, Pell has spent numerous hours meeting with the mayors of the five municipalities in the area and helping them agree to work together.

"We're counting on Debra's work breaking the barriers, along with help from the San Francisco Amuta [the JCF's volunteer board of Israelis] to help us develop programs for the whole region," said Berkowitz, a genetic researcher who heads a Jewish Agency committee for new enterprises in northern Israel.

Recruitment for group members is by word of mouth and interested young people are talking with board members daily.

"The most amazing thing happened to us — it was like a wave," said Berkowitz, noting that Gomeh expects 200 solid working volunteers by the end of the year. Members are chosen by skills and past volunteer involvement.

Gomeh has some projects on the table, but has not decided what the first one will be.

While the nuts and bolts of non-profits was a primary part of their journey here, an equally important component was helping to build the "living bridge" — or the people-to-people connection between Israeli and American Jews. Spending casual evenings with peers, staying in the homes of community members instead of hotels and participating in United Jewish Appeal's Young Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. with thousands of young adults from around the country were instrumental in helping to build relationships, said Lisa Tabak, JCF's YAD director.

In the meantime, Gutman said, it's important to them that the U.S. Jewish community stays strong. "We want to know that you know how to hold onto your young people. We hope you'll invest a lot of dollars in your community here to keep it strong."

"The `living bridge' goes two ways," said Cohen, who lives in Kiryat Shmona and is the owner of a computer company. "We're ready to do what we can to help Americans enrich their Jewish community and their connection with Israel."