U.S.-Israel exchange program getting a boost in S.F.

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It's brought Kenneth Starr to Israel, and occasionally takes Bay Area students and civil servants to the Holy Land.

Now the America-Israel Friendship League, a New York-based foreign exchange program, wants to strengthen its presence in San Francisco and expand the reach of its "peer-to-peer" partnership. That program sends people from the arts, the political and business worlds to meet their counterparts in Israel and discuss commonalities.

"San Francisco's Jewish community is proficient at doing many good things. We want to make sure the Bay Area is involved in all of our new national programs," said Stanley Urman, senior executive vice president of AIFL. Urman was in San Francisco last month to meet with Jewish agency leaders and visit AIFL's North Pacific Region office.

The AIFL, in existence for nearly 30 years, is a nonsectarian organization that sponsors "people-to-people exchanges" to enhance U.S.-Israel ties, Urman said.

"Our issue is not Jewish-Israel, just U.S.-Israel relations. We don't focus on political relations, instead on grassroots leadership. The U.S. and Israel share common values, such as freedom of speech."

Urman also stressed that economic investments between the countries is a two-way street, noting that Israeli investments in U.S. companies total approximately $1 billion.

"We want to promote more economic symmetry by bringing business leaders to Israel to influence and educate each other," Urman said.

A cornerstone of the agency is built on work with school boards throughout the U.S. on student exchange programs. Last November, for example, 16 Israeli high school students stayed with volunteer host families in San Francisco and visited schools for two weeks. Matching that arrangement is the Youth Ambassador Program that will bring eight U.S. students to visit Israel in February.

New developments for the AIFL's North Pacific Region are also in the works, Urman said. Last summer, Francis Berger of Hillsborough took over as the board's chairperson. The regional board plans to hire a new executive director in April, to replace George Karonsky, who will be leaving after 20 years of service.

"The community structures are very strong and successful here, and there is a good spirit of collaboration," Urman said.

Aside from its relations with Jewish communities, Urman described the AIFL as serving "a unique blend; it brings together all different races and ages."

The AIFL also tries to follow up the trips it sponsors by involving the participants in their local Jewish communities. "We find many continue to be active in the league and Israel affairs. The trip is not an end," Urman said.