Strenghening the partnership
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Strenghening the partnership

Nahariya’s Mayor Ronen Marelly visits northern New Jersey

At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, Ronen Marelly talks to a student as the head of school, Steve Freeman, and its assistant head, Ricky Stamler-Goldberg, look on.
At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, Ronen Marelly talks to a student as the head of school, Steve Freeman, and its assistant head, Ricky Stamler-Goldberg, look on.

Mayor Ronen Marelly of Nahariya, Israel, was excited to visit northern New Jersey.

Actually, the word he used to describe his feelings about the trip was “meragesh”— the Hebrew word usually is translated as exciting, stirring, or emotional – as he explained that it was a great opportunity to strengthen the important connection between the two places.

The city of Nahariya and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey have a relationship that goes back many years. Both are participants in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether, a network that the agency says is “for the promotion, empowerment and development of deep connections between Jewish communities in Israel and worldwide.” As part of the partnership, municipalities in the Federation’s catchment area were paired with Nahariya as sister cities and the connection between them has flourished. Delegations of visitors between the two areas have led to personal relationships and have enabled the sharing of expertise. Groups of local teachers have visited Nahariya, and Nahariya teachers have spent time in our area. Joint STEM programs were developed between Bergen County Academies in Hackensack and a school in Nahariya that gave students in both places the chance to work together on projects throughout the school year and then to meet in person to learn together and develop relationships. Federation leaders and donors have visited Nahariya.

The Federation also has led missions for first responders where participants shared expertise with their Israeli counterparts and were able to observe the situation on the ground there. Tim Torell, then a longtime member of the Englewood police department, participated in a first-responders mission in 2016. That was Mr. Torell’s first trip to Israel. He really loved being there — in fact he loved it so much that he was among the group of participants who extended their stay for a few days after the mission ended. He appreciated the opportunity to learn techniques from his Israeli counterparts, and he was happy to share his expertise in areas in which he had more experience.

What struck him most, Mr. Torell reported, was that the situation on the ground was much more normal than he had anticipated. He had expected a much tenser environment, with soldiers stationed all over. But then the group toured bomb shelters and saw metal detectors at mall entrances and his impression quickly went from normal to not so normal to a realization that it’s complicated.

Fast forward to 2022. Mr. Torell, recently retired from the police department after many years of service, has become the federation’s director of Jewish community security. He’s planning a first-responders mission scheduled to take place in early 2023.

From left, at Temple Emanu-El of Closter, JFNNJ’s chief of staff, Naomi Knopf, and the shul’s executive director, Becky Skoff, talk with Mr. Marelly.

The Federation also helps fund social service projects in Nahariya, including programs that address food insecurity and others for at-risk young people and seniors. One such project is Bayit Cham homes — facilities that provide at-risk teens with a home away from home, a place where they can find both physical and emotional support. The homes are staffed with social workers and provide food, laundry machines, and other necessities. The Federation also occasionally helps with funding when a particular need arises; recently it provided aid to help newly arrived Ukrainians acclimate to life in Nahariya.

So the connections run deep.

This trip was a particularly exciting one for Mr. Marelly because it was his first to this area in an official capacity, although he was elected mayor four years ago. A visit that had been scheduled for early 2020, like many events in that time frame, fell victim to covid.

Mr. Marelly, accompanied by Assistant Mayor Tal Almog and Ravit Steinmetz-Shemla, the director of Federation’s Israel office, toured local day schools and synagogues and met with elected officials. The three also spent some time with Federation leaders, staff members, and donors.

The whirlwind tour began with visits to the Frisch School in Paramus and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. The mayor was extremely impressed that members of both school’s administration seemed to know each student and with each school’s attempt to focus on how individual students learn. And the visitors were well received. Steve Freedman, Solomon Schechter’s head of school, felt that it was “truly a pleasure to host Mayor Marelly and discuss what we, as Jews, share in common, whether we live in Bergen County, USA or Nahariya, Israel.” Mr. Freedman said that the mayor’s “enthusiasm about the kind of education and Jewish education taking place at Schechter Bergen was palpable” and that the visit “underscores the importance of these relationships.” It seems that the students also enjoyed meeting the mayor; Mr. Freedman noted that “now, our eighth graders are excited to visit Nahariya, and maybe meet the mayor, on their eighth- grade trip to Israel this spring.”

Next up was a visit to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Mr. Marelly liked the idea of a large community center where people from different neighborhoods could spend time together, and the visit was certainly appreciated. The JCC’s CEO, Steve Rogers of Tenafly, described the meeting as a “wonderful opportunity to spend some time with an Israeli hero who has settled into the role of his dreams.” Mr. Rogers found it particularly inspiring that “the mayor has brought the skill set of his distinguished career in the IDF to the city of his youth” and noted that “we can all learn so much from this amazing leader.”

Mr. Marelly speaks at the Museum of the City of New York, at JFNNJ’s annual major gifts dinner.

Visits to synagogues of various Jewish streams also were on the itinerary. The delegation visited Temple Emanu-El of Closter, a Conservative synagogue; Congregation Ahavath Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Englewood; and Temple Sinai of Bergen County, a Reform synagogue in Tenafly. The mayor enjoyed all three visits and invited the three rabbis to visit Nahariya. He was particularly impressed by the size of the Reform and Conservative congregations, since these denominations have a much smaller presence in Israel.

The group also meet with local elected officials. “I often say that Bergen County’s diversity is our greatest strength and one of the best parts of my job is engaging with all the communities that make up the vibrant fabric of our county,” Bergen County Executive James Tedesco said. “I am very proud to represent thousands of Jewish Americans who call Bergen County home and it was a true pleasure to sit down with Mayor Marelly and discuss the roles of local government, as well as the strong partnership between county government and the Jewish community.”

Another productive meeting was with Hoboken’s Mayor Ravi Bhalla. Both Nahariya and Hoboken include waterfronts — Hoboken’s on the Hudson, Nahariya’s on the Mediterranean — and the two discussed challenges affecting coastal cities, including climate change. After sharing ideas and expertise, they plan to continue their collaboration over Zoom.

And of course, an important part of the trip was the time spent with JFNNJ leaders, staff, and donors. It’s clear that real relationships have developed and that people in each community feel a connection to the other area. There is a conference room in the federation office named in memory of Adar Barsano, a fallen soldier from Nahariya. When Mr. Marelly saw the plaque with Adar’s name, he was visibly moved, and explained that he had been Adar’s commander. The mayor then took a video of the plaque and the conference room and sent it to Adar’s father, a particularly touching moment.

“This was such a meaningful visit – both for Nahariya and for northern New Jersey,” the federation’s chief of staff, Naomi Knopf, said. “Our partnership is not just about sending support to those in need in Israel. It is about bringing our communities together and creating connections between people. Our friends from Nahariya gained a better understanding of the vibrancy and diversity of Jewish life here and were able to see that despite our differences, we are united in our love of Israel and commitment to a safe and secure State of Israel.

“And for those of us in New Jersey, the partnership is an opportunity to enhance our community’s understanding of the culture, politics, and history of Israel that we cannot get through the media. We are also creating new opportunities for partnerships between our local officials and those in Nahariya, which would never have happened without this delegation.”

Mr. Marelly agrees that the trip was meaningful. He was pleased to have the chance to spend time with “the wonderful people at JFNNJ and to thank them for their support,” and he is grateful for the warm reception the delegation received. Both he and the federation’s leadership are looking forward to future collaborations.

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