“It no longer feels like two communities with a common project. It is one community, sitting on two sides of the ocean.” Those were the words of Marcelo Burdman of Ashkelon, Israel, last week as the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership working mission came to a close.
There was a contagious energy in the multi-purpose room of Ashkelon’s Gvanim center for people with special needs, coupled with a feeling of satisfaction. Inspiration and optimism were also apparent. The working mission was less than one week. However, packed with relationship building, volunteering, site visits and an in-person allocation meeting, it felt like a lifetime … a very happy lifetime.
Two Cities. One Community.
Many people in the community don’t understand the value of Jewish Baltimore’s relationship with Ashkelon – or Odessa, for that matter. Why have sister cities, some community members will ask. When there are so many challenges on a local level, why invest abroad? Ask these questions of participants in last week’s mission to Israel and you’ll get very strong answers. The responses will include phrases like Jewish identity, making a difference, taking care of one another and building relationships that demonstrate to our children that the Jewish people stems far beyond the Baltimore community; we are part of something vast and valuable.
“The feeling of one community is so strong. I felt, ‘we are one.’ It is so obvious,” said Vered Shlauzer, an Ashkelon volunteer.
On Thursday morning, the Partnership came together to beautify the newly established Stewart & Marlene Greenebaum Volunteer Center. The building is becoming a nucleus for dynamic volunteer opportunities – for Ashkelonians and Baltimoreans visiting Ashkelon, as well. On Thursday, the team put on their jeans and tilled the earth, planting and creating a stone depiction of the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership logo in the yard. Aesthetic, but also a symbol for all who visit – an image of the Hebrew letter Aleph (for Ashkelon) and Bet (for Baltimore) facing one another, separated by the ocean, but bound together through their love of Israel, the Jewish people and the goal of making a difference in the world.
Throughout the week, Baltimoreans visited the numerous sites and people that are affected by our more than $9 million dollars allocated from THE ASSOCIATED Annual Campaign. The impact of Baltimore’s dollars through our three strategic partners –The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), The Jewish Agency for Israel and World ORT – was striking. At each site, people – children, immigrants, seniors – praised the programs that have bettered their lives.
At the home of the Mikovitches,* Esther and her husband, Binyamin, greeted their visitors with warm eyes. In their 80s, the couple has been living in Ashkelon for close to 50 years. They live alone, their adult children long since moved out, residing in towns in central and northern Israel instead. The couple is part of JDC’s Supported Communities network, similar to Baltimore’s Senior Friendly Neighborhoods program. They have an “av ha’kehila,” or program coordinator for their area, who checks on them regularly, helps plan programs and trips, and ensures they have items like an emergency response button in place in case of emergency.
Esther chats about her life in Ashkelon, sitting at a tiny oval table off her kitchen. The room’s corners are piled high with papers, books and unwashed clothing. It’s hard to move when one of the visitors wants to squeeze behind this chair or that.
“I want to tell you a story,” says Esther, her wrinkled lids closing slightly as she swallows before revealing one of her family’s recent traumas. “My husband, one day, he just didn’t wake up. … He was in his bed for 36 hours and I was so confused. I did not know what to do. I tried to wake him, but he just could not get out of bed. Then I remembered I had this button on my wall.” Esther turns to show a communication box near the ceiling, equipped with an emergency button that reaches the Supported Communities central office. “I pushed the button and someone answered. They talked me through it. They sent someone here to help me. They arranged a doctor’s appointment for my husband. It turned out he had blood cots in his bran. That box up there, it saved my husband’s life.”
Esther says she likes the Supportive Community program, she enjoys the lectures and knowing there is always someone she can call. It helps not to be isolated; without her children and with few friends, she wonders if she would ever get out without the program. But more importantly, she ponders what life would be like without Binyamin, what life would be like without “the box.”
Being in Ashkelon, Jack Zager of Baltimore said he feels “mvurach,” [blessed] – blessed to be a part of the Partnership and the committee that ensures people like Esther and her husband receive the care they need.
“I feel like I have relatives in this city. This is my mishpacha [family],” says Sheldon Berman, also of Baltimore, who said he thinks of Esther like a distant cousin and the Israelis sitting around the room during the final meeting like his brothers and sisters.
Said Vered Shlauzer, “There’s something good happening here.”
*All service recipient names have been changed.