In 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced the start of Project Renewal, a joint program of his government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, for rehabilitation of 160 distressed neighborhoods throughout the country. The program “twinned” areas with individual cities in the United States, Canada and Europe. Many of these communities were comprised of immigrants from North Africa who had come to Israel in the 1950s and had settled into temporary housing. Because of Israel’s numerous wars and financial difficulties, these communities had essentially become permanent “slums,” rife with crime, drugs, and economic challenges.
In 1979 Baltimore was twinned with Ir Ganim, a depressed community on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The $2.5 million, five-year mutual assistance program was intended to teach residents how to manage their own affairs, plan for themselves financially and seek government assistance. Proposed goals included rehabilitating housing, expanding the family care center, creating youth clubs, parks, sport fields and a library. From the start, the project was more than just a financial relationship.
“Ir Ganim wanted the money available for the project and to do all the work on their own, but we said, ‘That’s not satisfactory. If we just wanted to give you money, we would give you money, and walk away,” recalled Bernard Manekin, who worked on the effort. “But we’re involved also in the physical refurbishing of this project. We’re interested in the humanistic problems, the social problems. The project was more then just giving money it was helping a community in Israel rebuild itself using the knowledge the Associated had from caring and building the Baltimore Jewish community for so many years.”
Several years later Baltimore became just one of a half dozen communities to take on a second twin city, Kiryat Gat, located south of Tel Aviv and composed of many Soviet Jewish immigrants. Baltimoreans helped residents of that city by establishing summer camps, vocational training and drug prevention programs.
“I think Project Renewal really brought Baltimore Jewry and the people of Israel much closer together on a person to person basis,” said Stephen D. Solender in an oral history interview. “It was a very important part of our forging a much more intensive bond.”
In 2002 the Associated began to look for new partnership opportunities with communities in Israel. This time the objective would be one of mutual cooperation: It would allow the Associated to assist a community in Israel while building a program so that more Baltimoreans could establish personal connections to Israel—and vice versa. It would also ensure that a younger generation of Baltimoreans became more connected to Israel and Israelis.
The search was narrowed down to three cities and in 2003, Ashkelon, a coastal city south of Tel Aviv with a population of 111,000, was chosen.
The association expanded beyond the economic development of Project Renewal. It was a true partnership with both communities gaining from the relationship. Planning in both cities happened—and continues to happen—in parallel, with committees of lay-leaders and professionals meeting once a year to determine mutual priorities in economic and cultural development.
Young Ashkeloneans come to Baltimore to enjoy the variety of Jewish experiences and learn about Judaism in the Diaspora, and each year, and more than a thousand Baltimoreans, including teens and young adults, visit Ashkelon through The Associated, as part of a leadership development program.
Many of the shinshinim (Israeli emissaries)who spend a year in Baltimore to educate the community about Israel and its culture, also hail from Baltimore’s partner city. The life-long bonds they form are transformational.
“Not only (did) our children gain a big sister, but she also brought Israel to life in our home. Today, we no longer see the country as this place, 6,000 miles away, but we see it as a place where we have life-long friends,” explained Harriette Golob Wienner, who hosted one of the shinshinim and has since traveled to Israel to watch her get married.
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