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BUILDING LIVING BRIDGES – AFULA TEENS IN GREENWICH AT PURIM

Most people in town probably do not know that Greenwich is partnered with Afula, a city in northern Israel’s Jezreel Valley. It is a partnership worth knowing about.

The Greenwich Jewish community is one of 13 Jewish communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a group known as the Southern New England Consortium, that fifteen years ago entered into a special relationship with Afula and the Gilboa Region in Israel. This relationship grew out of  “Partnership 2000”, a program created by the Jewish Agency for Israel in cooperation with the Jewish Federations of North America,which includes the UJA Federation of Greenwich.

“Partnership 2000” is intended to connect Jewish communities throughout the world with specific cities and regions in Israel, creating sister-city relationships. The program is designed to enable Diaspora communities to have relationships with Israel that are tangible and result in collaboration and friendships at individual, organizational and community levels. These are partnerships among equals, not relationships between benefactors and beneficiaries. Each partnership is led by an independent steering committee with co-chairs from both Israel and the community abroad.

Two weeks ago, during a 10-day interfaith trip to Israel, members of Temple Sholom and Christ Church visited the Emunah

A Building at Emunah Children's Center, Afula

Children’s Center in Afula, Greenwich’s sister-city. And this past weekend, a group of 18 young people from the Emunah Center visited Greenwich accompanied by the Center’s Executive Director, Shlomo Kessel. The dancing and singing group, known as the Emunotes, gave performances after the Purim Megillah readings at Temple Sholom on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Kessel did much of the Megillah

Shlomo Kessel Reading the Megillah at Temple Sholom

reading on Sunday morning. That morning, the Emunotes also gave a performance in the Parish Hall at Christ Church during the Church’s coffee and education hour.

This was the group’s third visit to Greenwich.

The Emunah Children’s Center was opened in 1949 to provide a home for children orphaned during World War II. No longer a home for orphans, it is a residential community for children and teens at risk. It serves between 180 and 190 young people, ages 4 through 18, sometimes as old as 19, most of whom can’t live at home for one reason or another. Only 3 or 4 of the children are orphans. The rest have at least one living parent. Some do live at home.

Emunotes Dancing in Aisles at Temple Sholom During Purim

Kessel, the Executive Director, welcomed our interfaith group and gave us a tour of the Center when we visited  exactly 2 weeks ago today, on Thursday, February 18. He described Emunah as providing a “therapeutic quilt” for the children and teens. “Many tragic circumstances bring the children here,” he said. The children come to this therapeutic environment from a variety of backgrounds. Some are Israeli born, others came to Israel as immigrants, mainly from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Some are not Jewish. Many of the children come from single parent families. Many  have behavior problems, and many of the parents, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, have substance abuse problems, mostly with alcohol.

The Center works with parents and tries to involve them in its programs.  “We have a Mom’s and Dad’s Club,” Kessel said.

“How do we know that we have succeeded ?” Kessel asked. The measure of success is “How these children will raise their own children.” Kessel said that the Center strives to help the children and teens deal with the fears that prevent them from forming meaningful relationships with significant others.

Emunotes Performing at Christ Church

The Center, with a staffing ratio of 1 staff member for every 2 children, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, has an annual budget of $2.1 million. Between 60% and 65% of the funding comes from government sources. The rest is raised from private sources, mostly in the United States. Kessel said that much of his time is spent in fund raising.

The UJA Federation of Greenwich has been providing financial support to the Emunah Children’s Center in Afula through designated gifts since 2004 as part of the “Partnership 2000” program in which Afula is a Greenwich’s sister-city. The Federation also supports the Ha Emek Medical Center that serves Afula and its surrounding area.

The Emunah Children’s Center also receives financial support from Temple Sholom. “This is Kids in Crisis in Israel,” said Rabbi Mitchell “Mitch” Hurvitz of Temple Sholom. He said that there are a number of Temple Sholom families for whom this is an important place for charitable giving, or tzedakah.

Jared Making a Mezuzzah Case in Emunah Center Art Room

Relationships such as the one Greenwich has with the Emunah Children’s Center in Afula constitute what the Jewish Agency for Israel calls “a living bridge” between sister communities. Other “Partnership 2000” programs that contribute to this link include the Young Emissary Program which brings students who have just graduated from high school to the United States for a year, allowing them to defer military service for this period of time. This is the fourth year that Greenwich has participated in the Young Emissary Program. This year the emissaries are Or Geisinger and Hamutal Zimberg. The Jewish Agency views the Young Emissary Program as a “flagship program” that constitutes a “2-way living bridge.”

Afula, an urban center known as “the Capital of the Jezreel Valley,” has a population of 40,000. A third of its residents are recent immigrants to Israel who come mainly from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. It is only 8 miles from the West Bank city of Jenin, and has in the past been the target of terrorist attacks. The larger Gilboa Region has a population of 23,000 and is made up of kibbutzim, moshavim, Jewish villages and Arab villages. Forty percent of the Gilboa Region’s population are Arab Israelis.

When we visited the Emunah Center two weeks ago, the children were making Purim masks and artifacts for the Emunotes to sell during their upcoming visit to the United States. The Emunotes also sell CD’s of their singing performances.

When asked in an interview what he hoped the children would get out of performing tours such as this, Kessel replied that these performances “build self-esteem.” Saying that it was an important element in their “empowerment,” he went on to tell the story of a little girl who was in the audience during a previous Connecticut tour. She had bought a CD and was waiting for the Emunotes after the performance because she wanted them to sign the CD. “I want the stars to sign my CD,” she told Kessel.

Kessel said that it meant so much to the teens to be considered “stars,” because “they have not had the opportunity to experience success” in their lives before this. Their school work improves as a result, and their families are proud. “It is a life changing experience,” he said.