Kiryat Shmona to come alive here

While many Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area may not be familiar with the town of Kiryat Shmona, the residents of Kiryat Shmona are well aware of them.

This tiny Israeli town holds a special place in its heart for the San Francisco Jewish community. Plaques throughout the streets reflect the unique partnership that has created personal friendships as well as material support between both communities.

To introduce locals to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's sister city in Israel's northern Galilee, organizers of this Sunday's "Israel in the Park" festival have worked to literally put the city on the map — that is, on the mock map of Israel they are creating to honor "Israel at 50."

Located on the Lebanese border, Kiryat Shmona will be recreated in miniature along with other cities and landmarks at the festival, which is being held at Golden Gate Park.

Calling Kiryat Shmona one of the Jewish community's best-kept secrets, Harold Zlot, chair of the JCF's Israel and Overseas Committee, said he believes the festival offers the perfect opportunity to highlight the federation's efforts in Israel's Upper Galilee region.

Since 1985, when it was first linked to Kiryat Shmona through the United Jewish Appeal's Project Renewal, the JCF has provided direct support to its partner region in Israel. The nationwide UJA program was created to help American Jewish communities aid distressed Israeli areas while strengthening ties between Jews in both countries.

Through another UJA program called Partnership 2000, the federation has deepened connections with Israelis by expanding its efforts into the areas outside Kiryat Shmona.

Last year, nearly $700,000 in annual campaign funding was allocated to projects promoting such shared values as Jewish unity and tolerance, democracy, economic growth and human services. This was in addition to the $5 million directed to Israel through the United Jewish Appeal.

According to Neill Brownstein, chair of the JCF's Upper Galilee subcommittee, 10 grants totaling $200,000 are helping to enrich the lives of hundreds of residents–from infants to seniors–in Kiryat Shmona alone.

Brownstein has visited Israel 18 times and been involved since the beginning with the federation's work in its partner region. He's personally witnessed the economic growth and success of federation-funded programs in Kiryat Shmona and the Upper Galilee.

Among the achievements are a number of innovative programs boosting Arab-Jewish relations, engaging secular and religious communities in meaningful talks, supporting environmental issues, developing leadership skills and offering afterschool programs for at-risk youth.

On a recent mission to Israel in honor of "Israel at 50," Zlot and Brownstein examined a number of programs supported by the JCF in the Upper Galilee. That area is home to more than 90,000 people, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

They spoke warmly of the "home hospitality" offered by the residents of Kiryat Shmona, and Israel Independence Day fireworks at a park that the federation helped develop. Locals who frequent the park say the once-wild land is now named Hazahav — which means golden — in honor of the Bay Area's Golden Gate.

This weekend, visitors to Golden Gate Park's mini-Kiryat Shmona will enjoy activities sponsored by the JCF, its Young Adult Division, Otzma (the yearlong work program for college graduates) and Jewish Community Information and Referral. The federation booth also will offer information on activities and programs it supports here and overseas, ranging from the Gift of Israel savings program for teen trips there to its Israel Center.

In addition, the hundred participants just back from the Israel at 50 mission will gather to share photos and memories.

"It was a terrific trip and really reinforced the partnership between Jews from the Bay Area and Israel," said Zlot. "Over a decade ago, we set out to become a living bridge with the country…and today we can feel good about what's been achieved."

"I can't tell you what the next 50 years will be like, but eventually there's going to be peace, and things can only improve," added Brownstein.

"Three years ago, you could stand at the border between Israel and Jordan and easily tell which side was which — because the Israeli side was so much more modern.

"Today you can't tell the difference, because the two countries are working together in a fruitful and harmonious relationship. One day, I believe the Lebanese border will benefit from that same kind of peace."