From the Diaspora – with Love: Courting New Friends

Yoahy Ezrony goes high in the air and pulls down the rebound. He whips a pass out to Lior Levinger, who dribbles across the time line, then finds Gal Bar in the corner. Bar drives toward the hoop but finds his path blocked, so he tosses it out to a wide open Raz Grylak who fires it home from 25 feet, for three!

The crowd goes wild. At least some of them. As to the others… well, It’s hard to know who to root for, when the Home Team is playing… the Home Team.

I’ll be honest. When we first got word that our city would be hosting a “Basketball Delegation” from Israel, I was on the fence about whether it would be worth the effort. Or, perhaps more appropriately, on the bleachers. Watching, and waiting to be convinced.

The Delegation visit was a project of Partnership2Gether, a joint program that ties Pittsburgh to Karmiel and the Misgav region and seeks to build connections between people of all ages and interests. Pittsburgh is now 18 years into the Partnership program, which was rebranded last year as Partnership2Gether after being Partnership 2000 since its inception – about 12 years too long in my book.  (Launched in 1995 with a name meant to portray it as “forward-thinking” as the new millennium approached, Partnership 2000 quickly outgrew its name.)

Delayed rebranding aside, Partnership was – and continues to be – an ingenious way of redefining the relationship between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. 

At the birth of modern Israel, like it or not, we were pretty much the “haves” to Israel’s “have-nots.” The North American Jewish community had relative security, financial resources and just enough arrogance to believe Israel could not survive without us. A few decades later, Israel had the military might, technological prowess and the drive to prove she could do pretty well on her own, thank you very much.

Israelis and Diaspora Jews needed a new kind of relationship based on the new reality. So the Jewish Agency for Israel developed one. Instead of creating connections between “givers” and “takers,” Partnership 2000 was based on collaboration between equal partners – who had finally figured out that, while the needs were different on each end, Diaspora Jewry could no more exist without Israel than Israel could exist without us.

Connections needed to be based on our commonalities – shared history, traditions and a larger purpose as a People – rather than the differences born of living on two different continents, one of us constantly faced with external threats.

Or perhaps it took a different kind of threat confronting Diaspora Jews to make us aware of how much we needed Israel. And what could make the point more dramatically – and alarmingly – than seeing our children losing their sense of Jewish history, tradition and larger purpose?

Partnership2Gether (P2G) provides a framework for sister-city ties between Israeli and Diaspora communities. Each partnership establishes committees comprised of Israeli and Diaspora leadership, to work jointly on projects they themselves designate as mutually beneficial. Our Pittsburgh partnership with Karmiel-Misgav encompasses varied initiatives, with exchanges prevalent among them – exchanges of teachers, social workers, business leaders and others who can learn a great deal from visiting one another’s countries to see new and different ways of approaching their shared professions.

But basketball? The game is essentially the same wherever you go. Same rules, same objective. What’s there to learn?  

But there was something to learn. And I was among those who learned it. Not from what I saw on the court, but what I saw off-court – after the yelling, shoving, dribbling, shooting and fouling had ended.

I’ve been to more than my share of basketball games. I’m used to the half-hearted hand-shaking and hugging of coaches and players after the game. (Does the losing coach really want to congratulate the guy who’s now a little more likely than him to get his contract renewed? Do the players really want to hug the guys who knocked them down, whacked their heads, ran them into the bleachers and, worst of all, beat them?)

But this was different.

2012-12-12 21.04.26There wasn’t just hand-shaking and hugging. There were players embracing opponents and lifting them into the air. There were Israeli coaches high-fiving American volunteers who made it all possible. There were even a few tears – although, admittedly, those came mostly from the teenage girls who got to know the Israeli guys because their families provided home hospitality for the week.

Nope, not your typical basketball game.

In fact, not your typical week. In addition to practicing and playing two games against the JCC team, the Israeli delegation toured Pittsburgh; volunteered with kids, seniors, young adults, and at the local food pantry; attended two college basketball games; coached the JCC basketball clinic; and learned Torah with local kids. Meaning that they didn’t just connect with a dozen local teens, but with countless people of all ages.

Meaning that things didn’t end when the week ended.

Pittsburgh teens are now eager to visit Karmiel and Misgav. Local families will make the region a stop on their future Israel trips. Random members of our community will understand more about Israel than what they see in pictures and on the evening news. And we’ll all feel a little more connected to the Israelis. Some of us, a lot more connected.

In other words, we took a shot at something a little out of the ordinary. And scored big. And everyone wins.

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About the Author
Ellen Roteman is Director of Marketing Communications for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh