Raya Strauss is a born and bred Israeli, but says she did not feel fully Jewish until she forged close friendships with diaspora Jews through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program linking Israeli and American communities.
Today, as international P2K co-chair and Israeli director of the P2K partnership between her hometown of Nahariya and the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, she champions the program as a Jewish lifesaver.
“When a delegation came to me from North Jersey seven or eight years ago and asked me to lead P2K, I didn’t want to be part of it because I didn’t understand it,” she told The Jewish Standard following a March 30 presentation to UJA-NNJ.
|Raya Strauss builds bridges between UJA-NNJ and its sister city in Israel. courtesy raya strauss|
“It’s so sad now to admit I was an ignorant Israeli. I never went to synagogue and I never thought about how Jews live, about what they do,” said Strauss. “So I agreed to host visitors, but not to co-chair the project. Now, I am totally involved and totally in love. I felt I found my family.”
At the federation’s Paramus offices, she talked about how P2K fits into the Jewish Agency’s new strategic plan and the federation’s own strategic plan, which has targeted Jewish identity-building as one of its core priorities for the next four to five years.
“The plan is about reconnecting the young people we are losing in America, and also those in Israel, because most young Israelis are secular and are traveling the world without any awareness of their Jewishness,” said Strauss.
“Once they meet American Jews at [P2K] programs, they say, ‘We went as Israelis and came back as Jews.’ And Americans who participate come out feeling connected to Israel at a time when that is not so easy.”
The goal is to broaden existing partnerships, which now encompass 550 diaspora communities with 46 in Israel through school twinning, professional exchange programs, and other opportunities for personal engagement. “There are endless possibilities to fulfill our common need for strengthening Jewish identity,” she said.
“Every school in Nahariya is connected with a day school or supplementary school in North Jersey,” said Stuart Levy, UJA-NNJ community shaliach. “We have participation from 11 out of the 14 day schools, and 11 of the 12 supplemental schools.”
For the fifth year in a row, select 17-year-old Israelis from Nahariya will work as counselors in North Jersey Jewish day camps, this summer at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and at Camp Veritans in Passaic County. A choir from Nahariya’s Amal High School will perform in honor of Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day this May at several North Jersey venues.
A new facet of the project is to bring local Birthright Israel participants to the sister city in Israel’s north.
“UJA’s Center for Israel Engagement is arranging for two Birthright groups from North Jersey to go to Nahariya in May and June,” said Levy. “They will do projects there that will enable them to feel ownership in Israel, something lasting they created with Israelis.”
Strauss sees this as an important investment in the Jewish future. “I’m looking to do much more to touch the participants in Birthright and prepare them much better for university,” she said.
Ted Greenwood, local chair of UJA-NNJ P2K, said the highlight of the program has been “the extent to which we’ve managed to connect individuals and schools in northern New Jersey and Nahariya, at family, professional, and organizational levels.”
He cited a medical exchange program for first responders held at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, which has an underground emergency department, and a legal exchange program involving a group of Bergen County prosecutors and their Israeli counterparts.
“All of this is for [their] mutual benefit,” said Greenwood. “One of the pillars of our new strategic plan is strengthening Jews in North Jersey through contact with Israelis, and P2K is at the center of that. We’ll work on adding other ways to connect young people in Israel, here, and maybe even in other parts of the world. We’ll also work on connecting synagogues in our community with synagogues in Nahariya.”