Since 2003, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s sister city Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership has connected thousands of Ashkelonians and Baltimoreans, bridging cultural and geographic gaps through volunteerism, joint ventures and projects, shared meals and friendship. What began as an effort to partner North American and Israeli cities to aid in their development during the post-war era, has since morphed into a mission to connect Israeli Jews with the Diaspora and American Jews with Israel.
The Associated began projects with Israel’s developing cities in the 1980s through the United Jewish Appeal, now the Jewish Federations of North America.
“After the formation of the State of Israel, Israel was busy building a country and developing infrastructure and defending against hostile neighbors. In some cases, towns developed very quickly and in a very haphazard way,” Associated president and CEO Marc B. Terrill said. “These were known as ‘development towns’ and they had all kinds of issues.”
Project Renewal was launched to help development towns improve quality of life through education, social welfare, infrastructure, healthcare and other needs.
“Essentially it was American philanthropists through Jewish federations that were twinned with Israeli towns in order to lift them up,” Terrill said. “In the mid ’80s, Baltimore was twinned with Ir Ganim, a suburb of Jerusalem, and there were all types of activities completed. Ir Ganim was better off for that engagement.”
Baltimore then partnered with Kiryat Gat, where along with the existing mission, business development became a priority, and a precursor to the Maryland/Israel Development Center was born.
After working with Karmiel- Misgav in the north of Israel, the mission shifted. In the early 2000s, as the economy in Israel grew, wealth was generated internally and development assistance was less needed.
“The main call of the day was that there was a perceived growing gulf between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews and there needed to be a program that was essentially a living bridge between Jews in America and Jews in Israel,” Terrill said. “This was in 2003. We initiated a fact-finding trip to see what city would be the best match for The Associated and Baltimore in this kind of peer-to-peer connection.”
After doing their homework, 30 individuals with expertise in disciplines such as social services, business development and healthcare visited the three contenders: Rehovot, Ashdod and Ashkelon Ashkelon was ultimately chosen because of its broad similarities to Baltimore.
“First, the geographical, they had a marina and we had the Inner Harbor,” said Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership founding co-chair Linda A. Hurwitz, now The Associated’s chair of the board. “Second, when we made the shidduch, the merger, their Jewish population was similar to ours, about 100,000 Jews.”
“And the third reason was, we fell in love with the people of Ashkelon immediately,” Hurwitz added. “We wanted to pick a city that was not far from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, because we wanted people to visit and make it home for them.”
That was 15 years ago, and the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership is still going strong, with more than 15,000 people served directly through partnership projects last year.
“In addition, every year, more than 1,000 individuals from Baltimore travel to Israel to share meals, adventures, laughter and meaningful experiences with our friends in Ashkelon,” said Larisa Spirt, The Associated’s vice president of marketing. “The Associated invests approximately $1 million in Ashkelon each year, which has become home away from home for the Baltimore community.”
The more than two dozen partnership programs include Shevet Achim, which partners five schools in Ashkelon and Baltimore for three years and includes group projects and visits. There are teen fellowships; a youth choir; a Pearlstone environmental exchange project; scholarships to Camps Airy & Louise; reading, parenting and sports programs; housing assistance for disabled Ashkelonians; a mental health program for foster families and children; and the AMEN Teen Volunteers program.
“We’re very proud of the AMEN program,” Hurwitz said. “We also did a lot with Jewish Family Services and with our vulnerable populations in both communities. It’s beyond the dollars and beyond the programs, it’s heartfelt, haimish and truly touches the soul and spirit of every Jew involved.”
In Ashkelon, Moshiko Giat is co-chair of the Baltimore- Ashkelon partnership. He said since the partnership began in 2003, it has impacted and connected thousands of people “from both sides of the ocean.”
“The projects we funded touched many areas in the city,” he said via email. “Education, volunteering, Jewish identity, art, music, sport, social services and all ages from kindergarten to elderly. Our biggest impact is on teens and voluntarism.”
Giat said “Baltimore” has become a popular word in Ashkelon by virtue of the partnership and projects have improved life in Ashkelon, including one that brought together 300 Baltimoreans and 400 Ashkelonians to build a park and playground, known locally as Baltimore Park.
“Delegations and individuals have visited and also been home-hosted for meals or nights in both Ashkelon and Baltimore,” he said. “The two communities have begun to feel like family.”
In Baltimore, Susan Flax Posner has been co-chair of the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership since 2016, but has been involved since 2008 when her son was selected for the immersive Diller Teen Fellows program. The experience was transformative for him and the family. “No teacher, rabbi or parent could ever truly convey the feeling of being there, being in the land of our ancestors,” said her son Andrew via email. “The only way to have those feelings and feel a deep connection to the Jewish people is to travel to Israel and experience it firsthand.”
Posner said the partnership has connected the two communities through collaborative projects “that have built long-lasting and meaningful relationships and a great love for Israel and the Jewish people.”
“Through my work with the partnership I feel as though I have been instrumental in fulfilling my obligation as a Jew to engage in tikkun olam,” she added. “The partnership has provided me with an opportunity to have an impact on people’s lives and to enrich my own in the process. I have been to Ashkelon many times and will be there for Yom Hazikaron. I feel as though it is my home and the people there are part of my extended family.”
For Hurwitz, the partnership is personal. Her son was bar mitvahed in an Ashkelon synagogue, where the rabbi used her son’s tefillin to illustrate how to keep ties to Ashkelon.
“You should always be here in Israel and you should know that the work you do makes a difference to the people here in Israel,” Hurwitz recalled the rabbi saying. “It was such a beautiful message that I could never have given to my son — that connection and that desire to continue to do for Israel, which is a message that I hope transmits from the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership.”
Because the Baltimore- Ashkelon Partnership emphasizes relationships, understanding and embracing issues of mutual concern, Terrill said the program will be around for a long time.
“We’ve had incredible things happen, incredible relationships, some marriages, friendships and a place we can call home when we go to Israel and Israelis can call home when they come to Baltimore,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful dynamic.”
For more information, visit associated.org/baltimore Ashkelon.