This year, Israeli campers are returning to Camp Tamarack after a two-year hiatus.
This year, Israeli campers are returning to Camp Tamarack after a two-year hiatus. (Courtesy of Federation)

Editor’s Note: The JN will begin a regular series of stories from Detroit’s Partnership2Gether region. Here is an overview of the program to get it started.

Since 1994, three Michigan communities — Metro Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids — have partnered with three municipalities in Israel: Migdal HaEmek, Nof Hagalil and the Jezreel Valley, a region referred to as the Central Galilee. 

This partnership, backed by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, is the Partnership2Gether (P2G) program. 

A program of the Jewish Agency for Israel, with 46 partnerships connecting 400 Jewish communities around the world, the program was originally designed to address needs in Israel. 

Today, the Partnership strives to build significant opportunities and sustain long-lasting relationships through a variety of collaborative programs and shared resources, strengthening both communities. As an example, the partnership has continued moving forward during the pandemic when travel was massively limited. 

The P2G program includes English language instruction for Israeli young people.
The P2G program includes English language instruction for Israeli young people. Courtesy of Federation
The Partnership in the Beginning

P2G had simple intentions in the beginning — with Federation taking care of the Israeli region, usually sending money there, but nothing like the two-way interaction the program sees today.

Dona Stillman
Dona Stillman

Initially, it was a pipeline of funding resources for these communities that had certain needs,” said Dona Stillman, director of the P2G program. “And over time, a lot of very strong relationships started to form between the folks over there and people here in our community. 

“It’s sort of been a progression over time of strengthening and focusing in on those relationships rather than just the projects we do, which, of course, are important, but I think today most people would say the projects are just a means to connection and relationships between people.”

Stillman has been in her current role for more than three years but began her relationship with P2G around 2005. In that time, she has seen the partnership evolve in a major way, starting with the creation of the Israeli camper program about 20 years ago. The program sees kids from the partnership region attending Tamarack Camps in Ortonville during the summer.

“I think that was the first big shift. It was a real sea change in the partnership because it was created from something that was strictly happening over there. If you knew about it, you knew about it, but if you didn’t know, you had no way of knowing. It was insiders-only in terms of the Detroit Jewish community,” Stillman said. 

“When the Israeli Camper Program started, that really brought this partnership to our community, started making it more available to people here, made it more tangible and started creating a broader spectrum of relationships between the communities here and there.”

Another key initiative the partnership has invested in for many years is the support of English language instruction in the region. 

Israeli high school graduates come to Metro Detroit for a gap year.
Israeli high school graduates come to Metro Detroit for a gap year. Courtesy of Federation

“English language in the periphery is often lacking, and it’s a really important part of success to Israelis,” Stillman said. “It’s also tangentially an important part of the success of our programs because if the kids are not competent English speakers, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to bring them here for camp, and it’s impossible for them to come here for other things.” 

While they can’t say it’s all because of their program, Stillman believes it’s definitely a huge contributing factor to the success of English language instruction in the region with the younger generations oftentimes much more proficient English speakers than those who weren’t beneficiaries of the instruction. 

“The camper program and English language program were two huge landmark things over the years that propelled us to where we are today, which is creating a continuum of connection for folks to have relationships from the age of 12 or 13 at camp and then continuing through, coming back for Teen Leadership Village, counselor-in-training, Birthright trips, to our young leadership and more,” Stillman said. 

“All these things build upon each other and are programs that foster this continuation of relationship throughout the years.” 

The P2G Steering Committee
The P2G Steering Committee Courtesy of Federation
The Partnership Today

On a daily basis, Stillman juggles a handful of different tasks related to the partnership region. These items include the English language programs, teen leadership development (which includes the camper program, Birthright trips and Teen Mission), a program where young adults in Michigan are paired with young adults in the partnership region, helping launch a young adult initiative in the region similar to NEXTGen Detroit, and more. 

The ShinShinim program, where Israeli high school graduates from the partnership region take a gap year in Detroit, stay with a host family and take part in the community, is among the biggest day-to-day efforts Stillman is dedicated to.

The P2G program has two chairs in Michigan, Randi Sakwa and Ron Sollish, and two in Israel, Rachel Shechori and Avi Aviram. The P2G director in Israel is Einat Adir-Sappire.

What keeps the machine running is the committee here and in Israel and the relationships we form together because during normal times we travel regularly. Either their committee comes to Detroit or we go to Israel, at least once every nine months,” Stillman said. 

“Those trips are important to the work we do in creating these strong bonds between our committee members, and I think those relationships are at the heart of everything we do.” 

The Shared Society program’s goal is to break down the walls between Jews and Muslims.
The Shared Society program’s goal is to break down the walls between Jews and Muslims. Courtesy of Federation
Dealing with the Pandemic

For the past two or so years during the pandemic, it certainly hasn’t been normal times, and those trips weren’t able to be taken. Regardless, the two sides found ways to keep the partnership moving forward. 

“Obviously, at the beginning, our heads were spinning and we didn’t know which way was up for a little bit, but of all the things Federation is doing, I think P2G had a somewhat easier time pivoting,” said Jennifer Levine, director of Federation’s Israel & Overseas Department. “We already were used to operating (that way). Half of my staff has always been in Israel so since forever we’ve had to meet online.” 

P2G’s pivot saw many programs move to virtual without much problem, including the teen leadership program and a continuation of its counselor-in-training program. New, innovative programming also came about during this time, including virtual cooking and improv comedy events. 

“I think we discovered the silver lining, the capacity of what we could do online that we never knew before,” Stillman said. “There’s components of the online element we’ll keep long beyond COVID because when you’re working across the ocean, it just makes sense.” 

Jennifer Levine
Jennifer Levine

The Israeli camper program was paused during the height of the pandemic, but Israeli campers are now returning to Camp Tamarack this summer after a two-year COVID-induced hiatus.

Stillman and Levine look forward to returning to some type of normalcy on all fronts, getting back to traveling, getting programs back in-person and continuing to move forward. 

“P2G is one of the best tools we have as a community to turn the abstract concept of a global Jewish family into a reality, and that’s really what we try to do,” Levine said. “Federation exists to take care of the needs of the Jewish people and to build a vibrant Jewish future here, in Israel and around the world. 

“And I feel P2G is the best tool we have to focus on building a stronger Jewish community.” 

For more about Partnership2Gether and how to get involved, contact Dona Stillman at stillman@jfmd.org or (248) 943-1553.

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