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West Hartford takes the lead in coordinating new Israeli bridge-building initiative

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – One Wednesday evening in May, members of a Torah study group gathered at the Crown Market after hours and were joined by American-Israeli musician Yitzchok Meir Malek, who gave an impromptu concert.

When he wasn’t jamming at the Crown, YM – as Malek is popularly known – along with Rabbi Reuven Spolter and Israeli tour guide Eitan Morrell spent three days meeting and interacting with several groups within the Hartford Jewish community. The trio’s visit was part of Amiel BaKehila (ABK), a new initiative of the Israeli Ministry of the Diaspora and Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox movement founded in 1983 that oversees a network of 27 educational institutions, women’s empowerment programs, outreach initiatives and social action projects,

Amiel BaKehila provides three-person Israeli delegations that, according to organizers, travel to Diaspora communities to “create meaningful programming that will unify, broaden, enhance and strengthen [local Jewish communities] and [their] connection to the Jewish State.”

The delegations include a Jewish educator, Jewish artist and an “Israel-engager”–an expert on Israel who may be a member of the military, Israel’s high-tech sector, an expert in hasbarah or an Israeli politician.

Amiel BaKehila works with these Diaspora communities to design a yearlong program that incorporates seven, three-day visits from those among the program’s Israeli ‘ambassadors.’

West Hartford is one of only 24 small to mid-sized Jewish communities to become a part of ABK. Young Israel of West Hartford is the coordinating organization for the program.

Amiel BaKehila came about because Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs “saw a need to invest in building bridges between the Diaspora Jewish community and the Israeli Jewish community – to create opportunities for both Israelis and Diaspora Jews, in our case, Americans, to meet each other and have cultural experiences,” explains Rabbi Tuvia Brander of Young Israel of West Hartford.

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs put out a bid for the bridge-building program; Ohr Torah Stone developed Amiel BaKehila to fit the need and won. ABK then put out a call to communities interested in participating.

“We jumped at the opportunity and through conversations with them we were selected to partner with them to bring this program to the Greater Hartford area,” Brander says.

The Israeli government and Ohr Torah Stone pay for the majority of the program’s costs – travel and honorariums for the Israeli ambassadors – but the local coordinating organization is asked to provide some things like housing, food, and local transportation.

“We thought it was a wonderful opportunity, not just for the Young Israel community, but for the whole greater Hartford area, so we decided to step up to host it for the entire greater Hartford Jewish community,” said Rabbi Brander. “We’ve gotten support from the Jewish Community Foundation and the Federation to help facilitate that.”

The program last May was actually a pilot for the program during which a lot of planning meetings were held in between sessions between the Israelis and the locals.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter, a past spiritual leader at Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford, is the international director of Amiel Ba’Kehila and he served as educator for the program in May. He and his family made aliyah to Israel in 2008.

Both Spolter and Morrell, a licensed tour guide who served in the IDF as a tank gunner and studied Middle Eastern and Jewish history at Bar Ilan University, spent time at Hebrew High School of New England, (HHNE) talking about Judaism and Jerusalem with the students at HHNE.

YM also visited the Hebrew Home & Hospital and Hebrew Academy. Known for his “Jewish Unity” concerts, YM often plays his music on the streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat evenings or at IDF army bases on Havdallah.

“This is a unique opportunity to bring different experts in their field to show a certain face of Israel that isn’t afford through onke-time guest speakers or shlichim,” Brander says. “This s a different kind of experience. Whether bringing chefs, artists, musicians or people involved in start-ups, its the way we bring them. They attack the issues from all different areas, from community events to more focuses events and get the most out of the visitors while they are here. They are fully charged, energized and excited to speak.”

The next event will be held Oct 16-18 on Culinary Culture.

“The educator and people who accompany them will be artists or chefs or people who are dealing with food sustainability in Israel,” Brander notes.

Between December and next spring, programs will deal with subjects like “Life in the IDF,” and “Spirituality in Israel,” “Civil Rights & Pluralism in Israel.”

The year-long program will culminate in a community-wide “Capstone Musical Project” celebrating Israel’s 71st birthday in May.

“The first Amiel BaKehila program was unbelievable,” Brander says. “We had an unbelievable turnout at the lunch and learn we did at the JCC. It was very well received. Even though it was a pilot, it itself was very successful visit and we are looking forward to working and growing with that momentum in the coming year.”

For more information about Amiel BaKehila visit www.youngisraelwh.org/abk and 

CAP: Musician Yitzchok Meir Malek – also known as YM – performing at Hebrew Academy as part of Amiel BaKehila.

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