A Far-Flung Extended Family: Building a Living Bridge
I grew up in a family with parents who made aliyah to Israel and left large families behind in South Africa. Despite the vast distance that separated us, I grew up with these people playing an active role in my life. In my short time as the Director of Israel Engagement, I have come to learn that BJ’s relationship with its partner communities is very much like having a far-flung extended family such as my own.
The BJ community has family in Israel, and its partner communities in Israel— Nigun Halev, Beit Tefilah Israeli and HaMidrasha—have family here. Together with their leaders, we are collectively helping to develop and deepen our connection between our peoples. We want Israel to be not just a headline in the New York Times, or the place one spends a junior year abroad, but to be the home of Chen, Guy, Nir, Michal and Shay.
Over the past year, the ties that bind us together were strengthened by visits to our partner communities during a series of BJ Israel trips. In February 2013, our teens traveled to Israel for the first time on a service learning trip led by Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein. Two of the BJ teens, Amelia Geser and Sammi Lubliner, described meeting the Nigun Halev teens: “The last few hours have been amazing. We walked off the bus to open arms. The teens welcomed us into their building, where we all introduced ourselves and played ice breakers. Their English is amazing—they’re just like us! They wear the same clothes, have the same sense of humor, and know all the same music. We took a walk around the neighborhood to see trees, horses and a breathtaking sunset. Currently, we are sitting in front of a huge bonfire enjoying individual stove-cooked pizzas. Bonding with the Israeli teens has been amazing, and we can’t wait for our home stays tonight!”
Then, this past December, Rabbi Felicia Sol led 35 adults and children on a Family Israel Trip. In the BJ in Israel blog, Ellen Silver reported on the beautiful Shabbat experience with Nigun Halev in Ginosar. “The Israelis, with their beautiful, strong singing voices and confident Hebrew, sang prayers we knew from BJ, with some of our distinct melodies,” she said. “It was strangely comforting to sing and pray together with these people that we had just met, and feel so connected through our melodies and spirit. There was some major ruah!”
The third major bonding experience between our communities took place just this past April, when a long-wished-for, week-long trip to BJ by Nigun Halev teens came to fruition. Twelve teens from Nigun Halev, led by Rabbi Chen Ben Or Tsfoni, were hosted by BJ families who welcomed them as if they were their own. The Nigun Halev teens immersed themselves in the BJ community, as well as the wider Upper West Side Jewish community. They volunteered at the Judith Bernstein Lunch Program and with West Side Campaign Against Hunger; taught at the BJ Hebrew School; and met with students at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. They had conversations with Rabbis Matalon, Bronstein and Sol about the history of the New York Jewish community and how community provides support to the people, and they reflected deeply about what they would take away from their visit. With Rabbi Jonah Geffen, the teens also grappled with issues of Jewish and Israeli identity and the complexities of having a strong connection with Israel while living in Manhattan. There was also time for sightseeing: the Israeli teens walked across the Brooklyn Bridge; took in a bird’s eye view of Manhattan from Top of the Rock; and took the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Many thanks to the families who hosted the Nigun Halev teens, and to BJ members who took the time to help make the visit successful!
As we delve deeper into what it means to be in partnership with another community, our wisdom on these issues will continue to grow. One essential component will be regular rabbi-led Israel trips for adults, families and children. The BJ teens will travel to Israel every third year for an international service learning trip. Nigun Halev teens plan to visit us again in April 2017. Other initiatives are in the works to forge new personal relationships between members of our communities as we deepen existing ones, ensuring that our far-flung extended family is a tight one.