When things work, you try to ensure (l) that they’ll keep on working, and (2) that you’re taking advantage of every opportunity to make them work even better.
With this in mind, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades has joined with the Israeli-American Council, headquartered in Los Angeles, to form one unit that will provide services and resources to American Israelis in New Jersey. The agreement — which calls for unified programming and a joint financial model — is a first: In no other community does the IAC work in such close partnership with a JCC. Indeed, the joint venture will be housed at the JCC in Tenafly.
Aya Shechter, director of the Israel Center at the JCC, will become the IAC’s New Jersey regional director, according to the JCC’s CEO, Jordan Shenker. Ms. Shechter also will continue to support ongoing JCC efforts, such as its summer camp and afterschool programs. Shai Nemesh, the IAC’s New Jersey program director, will join her in her work for the IAC.
“Like many things, [merging the two programs] is not a simple process,” Mr. Shenker said. “Ultimately, it emanated from several years of collaboration between these two organizations. From the moment [the IAC] arrived, we began playing in the same sandbox,” he added, comparing the relationship to “dating.” After “six to ten months of discussions with different people, lay leaders and professionals, we said, ‘What if we really thought differently? What would it look like? Let’s see if we can’t figure out a much more formal relationship to meet both of our needs.’” While each organization, accepting the need to make joint decisions, clearly would be giving up some control, the question, Mr. Shenker said, was, “What is for the greater good that may not have been the best option for us individually? What is the long game?”
The IAC, which now has some 10 chapters throughout the country and access to significant resources, already has launched programs in towns including Hoboken and New Brunswick, and in the Metrowest area. “They want to set up shop here because of the longtime success of the JCC in Tenafly in serving the community, and the growing Israeli community in the area,” Mr. Shenker said.
About 15,000 Israelis live in and around Tenafly, Mr. Shenker said. “Israelis living here have a passionate interest in maintaining their language and Israeli culture,” he added. “Many believe they’re going back some day. They want to feel as Israeli as they can while living here. They gravitate to experiences in Hebrew to feel connected to Israeli culture. Also, coming here without language skills and social contacts, they gravitate to what is familiar.”
The JCC Israel Center was established 10 years ago. Starting with scarcely 100 participants during its early years, “today we’re serving between 3,000 and 4,000 Israelis in active, ongoing programs at the JCC,” Mr. Shenker said. The fact that there is no model for the new venture with the IAC anywhere else “was part of the motivation for us both,” he continued. “They were looking to identify a model they can replicate with other affiliates. We have 150 sister JCCs. If it works, we’ll share.”
Mr. Shenker said that the merger will “increase and leverage the number of people we can serve, resources we can offer this population, and increase the impact we have in the community to create a stronger opportunity for engagement between Israelis and the general Jewish community.” For her part, Ms. Shechter called the joint venture “a positive move, because both organizations have similar values and aspirations to serve and engage the Israeli American community. We have demonstrated in a year and a half of working together that when we collaborate and join forces, we can do things more effectively and can do more for the community.”
The idea, she said, “is to do things together at the JCC, and things done elsewhere in New Jersey will be done by the IAC.” Still, she noted, “We will definitely try to expose the entire community here to the various opportunities available in different locations.” In addition, “We will ensure that the programming that currently exists at the JCC for the Israeli community will continue to operate at the highest level.”
“It was clear to all that working within the JCC would create a win-win situation,” said Shoham Nicolet, the IAC’s chief executive officer. While the two organizations have worked together in the past, “we hope to see more collaboration.” Nicolet said that the American Jewish community has much to learn from its Israeli members, “and we have a responsibility to bring our hybrid identity and other advantages to support the community.”
He hopes that a leadership training program for 15 Israeli American high school students will bear fruit, “and they will be leaders in the Israeli American community,” Mr. Nicolet said. “We’re focusing on building leadership and programs based on what the community wants. It’s becoming more of a movement, not like in the past, when we were just running programs.”
According to Mr. Nicolet, the IAC functions differently in each area it serves. “It’s run by experts, but by the time it comes to a city and state, it caters to the exact location and needs of the community, which adapts it to speak the language of that community.” Even eight years ago, he said, many Israelis faced complete isolation. “We see a huge shift, a revolution,” he said, calling it “the fastest growing Jewish revolution in the U.S. today.” He pointed out that in the past, the American Jewish community’s policy was based in large part on Israeli policy, which stressed that Israel was the place for all Israelis. Today, however, things have changed, and “top ministers in Israel are coming to speak to our community.” In the past, “there was no recognition of an Israeli diaspora.”
The IAC is working to develop ways in which Israelis and the wider Jewish community can work together. “It’s a very important message,” Mr. Nicolet said. “We’re Israeli Americans. We have a hybrid identity. We’re still an immigrant community but part of the larger American Jewish community and can contribute to it.” Realizing that many Israelis are here to stay, he said that the choice was “either lose this community or convert it into an opportunity and turn it into an asset.” For example, with a strong connection to Israel and a knowledge of Hebrew, “we could use it in the American Jewish community to support Israel and fight initiatives such as BDS.”
As for the new arrangement with the Kaplen JCC, “The IAC is thrilled to be working within, and in full collaboration with, one of the nation’s largest and most highly regarded JCCs,” Mr. Nicolet said. “We believe that this new partnership provides an exciting model for IAC-JCC collaboration that can be replicated all across the country.”
“This merger will enable two organizations already doing fantastic work engaging New Jersey’s Israeli-American community to become even more effective,” Mr. Shenker said. “With our combined resources and expertise, the IAC and the JCC are going to nourish a vibrant center for Israeli life in our community like never before.”
“One of the major efforts we are going to invest in during the upcoming year is the connection between the Israeli and American Jewish community,” Ms. Shechter said. “We’re working on initiatives to connect teens and adults. If there are people who think this is a worthy cause and want to volunteer and create new programs, they should contact me at Aya@Israeliamerican.org