Helping others help themselves is goal of JCF in Israel

With a name like Gila Noam and the title director of the Jewish Community Federation's Israel office, one might expect an Israeli accent.

Instead, when Noam arrives for an interview in San Francisco and utters her first words, it's pure New York — where she grew up. You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the girl.

But make no mistake — Noam is Israeli through and through. More than 30 years ago, as a college student she traveled to the Jewish state for a junior year abroad, and there she stayed.

"I was raised in a home which was very pro-Zionist," she says. "My mother is a seventh-generation Israeli. I went to Jewish day school. I went to Hebrew-speaking camps in the summers."

For much of her three decades in Israel, Noam worked on the research end of the social service world, including five years heading the division of immigrant absorption at the Joint Distribution Committee-Brookdale Institute. But research felt too removed for Noam.

"Research, even hands-on research, is one step away from reality," she says. "I really wanted to get closer to the programs in the field."

So six months ago, she set up shop in the JCF's Jerusalem office. She replaces Natan Golan, who has opened a private consulting firm.

Her new position requires her to get up close and personal with projects that the JCF may be interested in funding. She does so in conjunction with two JCF volunteer advisory boards, also known as amutas. One covers all of Israel and the other is focused on the Upper Galilee, the JCF's "partner" region.

"The mere fact that [the Bay Area and Israel] were able to identify shared values is a big step in creating a meaningful relationship," Noam says.

This year, the JCF and the national amuta have identified Jewish pluralism and Arab-Jewish coexistence as areas of common interest. The spectrum for the amuta in the Upper Galilee is broader, covering a whole array of social and educational projects.

Noam calls the give and take between the amutas and the federation here a rare commodity.

"For Israelis, it is very rare to have that kind of partnership with an American Jewish community," she says. "It diverges very radically from the traditional philanthropy model."

Among the projects Noam has proposed for funding is one that trains Bedouin women in the country's south to set up preschools. Bedouins tend to be low in the socioeconomic hierarchy and the aim of such a program is to prepare Bedouin children to integrate into the larger society.

The project exemplifies a theme underlying many of the projects selected for funding. "That's the empowerment theme," she says. "It's not just putting the check on the table, but giving people the tools and wherewithal to impact their own future."

In either case, the amutas will work closely with federation officials here, Noam says. She visited the Bay Area to get to know her cohorts and familiarize herself with the Bay Area Jewish community.

Her trip, she says, added a new dimension to her view of Israel's importance to diaspora Jews.

"I have a better understanding of how important it is to make Israel a better place so that Jewish communities like San Francisco can identify and be proud of that society and really link up to it."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.