Engaging a Community, Strengthening Connections

The Wonderful Story Behind Temple Sinai’s Partnership with Ramot Shalom, Be’er Sheva, Israel
By Rhonda & Stephen Singer

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In 2012, thanks to the generosity of Jeffery & Tatjana Singer, the Israel Special Projects Fund, Temple Sinai, along with ARZA Canada, agreed to provide some financial assistance to support a new gan (kindergarten) in Be’er Sheva, Israel. The partnership blossomed, and in 2014, in celebration of Temple Sinai’s 60th anniversary, Rabbi Michael Dolgin led a mission to Israel. Participants on the mission stopped to meet with Naomi Efrat, creator and coordinator of the newly progressive Reform community, and a few key personnel in a 60 square meter room they called home. Little did we realize that this group was only one month old at the time.

The following summer, Naomi and her family visited Toronto and Temple Sinai. This five foot tall, passionate young leader inspired many of us in the room when she described her vision of creating a pluralistic community that included a dialogue between Jews and Arabs. As a result, a few us, including Lorne Bernstein, Glenn Cohen, and ourselves, decided Ramot Shalom needed a Torah. With Rabbi Dolgin’s support and David Cohen as our staff liaison, we formed a small task force with Dene & Glenn Cohen, Dorothy Millman and Miriam Pearlman. Phase one of our engagement strategy was initiated:

1. Connect with Naomi on communicating her vision to Temple.
2. Donate the proceeds from the annual 50/50/50 fundraiser from our Adult Purim Shpiel to Ramot Shalom.
3. Plan a mini-mission to Israel to deliver the Torah, which would coincide with the conclusion of the March of the Living in May.

The First Phase — Defining The Vision
Dene Cohen worked with Naomi to better understand what she was driven to accomplish: “We are building a Reform community in Be’er Sheva, creating a way for secular Jews to embrace Judaism as something that moves their lives forward, that embraces a set of morals and ethics so that Judaism is on our side and is, in fact, essential to the future of Israel.”

Involving our Community
One of the many highlights of Purim this year was a short video on Ramot Shalom. In three minutes, we saw the spirit, the ruach, of this community in a myriad of compelling ways. It set the stage for the 50/50/50 draw and our community generously contributed over $3,000.

final coverAs the date of the mini-mission to Israel and the donation of a Torah to the newly formed congregation Ramot Shalom drew near, it was decided that the Torah should be sent with both a children’s and adults' cover. In this way, we could facilitate a relationship between the children from Temple’s religious school to the children of Ramot Shalom. With the combined talents of our artist-in-residence, Temma Gentles, and our school artist Sally Blackman, two beautiful covers were designed and formed. Through E-vents, we invited the congregation to take part in decorating the adult cover, which included cutting out and decorating hamsas that were sewn on the colourful Mediterranean fabric. In addition, through Marilyn Cukier and Sinai Connections, we asked for people to come forward to contribute and sew on red and blue buttons that had personal meaning as well as representing Canada and Israel. For the children’s Torah cover, a rainbow motif was chosen to be the focus and each Grade, from 1 to 6, painted one of the many rainbow’s vivid colors. The results? Two beautiful Torah covers lovingly created as reminders of the partnership between our two communities.

Strengthening our Connections — Getting to Know Be’er Sheva
If we were to build and strengthen connections between our two communities, we decided it was important to learn more about the community where Ramot Shalom was situated. Although we had been to Israel the year before, we wanted to gain a better understanding of grass roots Be’er Sheva, expand our lens of Israel and, more importantly, not have our thinking only be shaped by what we read and hear in the media. So we chose to go a week earlier than the Torah presentation mission and spend time speaking with people who make up the circle of partners and colleagues associated with Ramot Shalom.

Through the kindness and efforts of Naomi and her husband Eliad, here is a sampling of just a few of the outstanding people that we met:

  • A dynamic orthodox couple that live in Mizpe Ramon and warmly welcomed us into their home on Shabbat. Over a delicious lunch, Dina and Ira told us how they give their children the freedom to choose what path of Judaism they want to follow. Dina works with Haredi women to help them get an education as a teacher, certified to work anywhere in Israel. Ira is a talented painter and writer.
  • An IDF soldier who, after travelling the world to find himself, decided that his home in the Negev was where he wanted to stay and make the desert THE PLACE to be. Iftach, now an entrepreneur, partners with a Bedouin friend and we visited their recently created meeting and sleeping venue to hold retreats and house strangers needing a place to stay. He organizes an amazing amount of innovative ways to connect this community that are economic as well as community minded.
  • Staff at the Hagar Association: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality where each class has two teachers — one Arabic and one Jewish — so the classes are made up of 50% Arab and 50% Jewish children. In a meeting with four of the staff, we heard about the tremendous effort to create a peace — building curriculum that promote understanding and respect for each other’s community’s culture. We dialogued on ways to deal with the challenges while acknowledging the tremendous and important work they have taken on.
  • Jamal, founder and executive director of A New Dawn in the Negev is a Bedouin who lives in Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel. He works tirelessly to develop young leaders in his community. With a backdrop of slums, garbage and metal shacks, Jamal introduced us to the father of one his students. The father did not speak English and had four wives. Two of this man’s sons sitting with us were 33 and 21. They work in a chicken factory with no hope of better employment or window to the possibilities of the world. We learned that the high percentage of Bedouin youth is a potential powder keg that Israel has to handle more effectively and sadly parallels the situation with Canada’s First Nations people.
  • Rabbi Yael Karrie, who has spoken at Temple Sinai in the past, introduced us to Meggit, a Bedouin leader with whom she partners. Together they have successfully worked on creating a variety of shared initiatives between their two communities. Amazingly, the invitation goes out and people eagerly attend. When I asked her what do you want me to tell our community in Toronto, she simply replied with this: “We have hope”.

Reflecting on What We Learned
In reflecting on the first of two amazing weeks in Israel, we were reminded of the prayer for our People and Our Nation and the compelling sentence that resonates so strongly: “For the joy of community, the gift of diversity and the vision of harmony we offer our grateful thanks.” We saw many promising efforts of hope in Israel, a country standing for democracy and populated with an extremely complex diversity. The old saying "to know you is to love you" comes to mind.

We gained so much from having conversations with and listening to many peoples’ stories. We were impressed with their strength, their determination and innovativeness to collaborate, partner and accomplish what few think can be done.

Moving toward the Future
At the end of our week, we took the train back to Tel Aviv to meet Rabbi Dolgin and the rest of the Torah mission to experience the joy of giving to a community pioneering ideals and values that we take for granted in Temple Sinai of Toronto. The joy is in the giving and it is because our story started from giving and meeting this very special inspiring leader Naomi Efrat who had made a decision for a better Israel for her daughters.

What's Next?
With the giving of Torah, our work is just starting. We have so many more possibilities to strengthen our partnership on both sides of the ocean. The excitement comes from one community connecting with another, learning and sharing — in real time! As a congregation, we can put our power and voice into helping Naomi Efrat and Ramot Shalom spread the ripples of Reform Judaism in a positive, powerful and pluralistic way.

Our support can make a tremendous difference. So what’s next?

Watch for Temple’s next engagement phase and how you can become involved! If you would like to make a contribution to the Ramot Shalom community, please consider donating to the Israel Special Projects Fund.