In 1996, our Jewish Federation was asked by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres z”l and The Jewish Agency for Israel to partner with the town of Ofakim in the Western Negev and the nearby regional council of Merchavim. Since then, our partnership has become a nationally renowned model for enhancing Israel-Diaspora relations.
Ofakim, founded in the early days of Israel as a service center for the nearby agricultural communities – the Moshavim of Merchavim. As part of Ben Gurion’s vision to make the Negev bloom, many olim (new immigrants), mainly from North Africa and the Former Soviet Union, were settled in Ofakim throughout the years.
Life in the region was never easy. In the first few decades, the peripheral nature of Ofakim, the low socio-economic situation, and the location not far from the Gaza strip made it quite challenging. And yet, these pioneers, the Halutzim of the Negev, didn’t give up and the community has thrived. Initially, the purpose of our partnership was to help the communities with economic development and through financial support, but it has evolved into so much more, to include education, community empowerment, Jewish Peoplehood, and people-to-people relationships.
The living bridges – the bonds that have been created between residents of Ofakim/Merchavim and Greater MetroWest – are long-lasting. Over the years, our partnership has been involved in many programs and activities including bringing high-end art and culture to Ofakim through the music center and the Igloo art station, enhancing quality education in HaGiva School, connecting Merchavim High School and Golda Och Academy, working with at-risk kids through the Laulicht Center and Youth Futures, and empowering youth movements and grass-roots community organizations. Our signature initiative, the Peoplehood Project, is a two-year leadership program that brings together 30 to 40 adults from both Israel and NJ to discuss topics such as Israel Diaspora relations, Jewish Pluralism, Zionism and leadership, and develop programs together.
The past 25 years have enabled us to stand side-by-side with our partners in Ofakim/Merchavim and see Ben Gurion’s vision become a reality. New neighborhoods and public facilities are rising from the Negev desert. A fairly new train station and fast highways are connecting the region to the center of Israel and reversing its image of being on the periphery of society. Many young families are choosing these communities to be their home. We look forward to seeing what the next 25 years of partnership can produce!
Watch a video about the partnership between Greater MetroWest NJ and Ofakim/Merchavim.
For more information on our Greater MetroWest partnerships in Israel and how you can get involved, visit our Global Connections page.