Is Tel Aviv/L.A. partnership still working?

It’s one of those visions that becomes so natural in its realization it’s easy to forget just how cutting-edge it once was.
August 3, 2011

It’s one of those visions that becomes so natural in its realization it’s easy to forget just how cutting-edge it once was.

In 1995, leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles sought to establish a connection with a community in Israel that would be based on intimate and mutually beneficial relationships, not on the rich uncle-poor nephew model that until then had characterized how U.S. Jews related to their Israeli cousins.

Federation established the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership in 1997, a sister city network that involved schools, professionals and artists in collaborative projects and exchange programs.

The Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership became the first and eventually largest of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 program, and by all accounts evolved into an international model for fostering a more mature relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

Now, Federation is putting that relationship under a microscope, to determine what it can learn from the successes of the past 16 years and where there is room for expansion, improvement or elimination of some elements of the program.

Nearly all agree the most successful component of the program has been the School Twinning Program, through which 38 middle and high schools, 19 each in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, collaborate on joint curricula, participate in video conferencing and exchange delegations annually. Federation estimates that, since its inception, the School Twinning Program has touched some 60,000 people — including, in addition to the students, the educators and families who house the delegations — and alumni of the program attest to the lasting relationships built through it.

A cinema master class, which brings together top film and television professionals from both cities for a summer workshop (a group that included Jerry Bruckheimer and J.J. Abrams, among others (see related story on Page 15), met with Israeli filmmakers in Los Angeles this month), has resulted in collaborative film projects and adaptations of Israeli shows — such as “In Treatment” — breaking into the American market, thus indirectly reaching millions.

While the school twinning comprises 85 percent of the roughly $1.4 million budget of the Partnership, and the master class another 10 percent, many smaller programs have also built bridges in other areas — master classes in opera, choreography and the visual arts, and initiatives on poverty, school violence and fundraising. Mayor’s councils in both cities have at times involved top municipal leadership and led to a collaborative environmental effort, including a Sister River agreement signed in 2008 by Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Ron Huldai, involving the Los Angeles and Yarkon Rivers. Collaborations between museums, galleries, universities and municipal agencies created connections with Jews and non-Jews.

In the process, according to both external and internal evaluations, Angelenos have connected in a real way to Israel and Israelis, and secular Tel Avivians experienced, often for the first time, what liberal Judaism could look like, and have built a connection to Diaspora Jewry.

But even with that success, the Partnership needs some fresh energy to move forward, according to Federation.

“The Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership was the flagship project of [The Jewish Agency for Israel’s] Partnership 2000, and people sort of took it for granted that it was smooth sailing and very effective,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv strategy group that conducted a study of the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership in 2010.

“In 1995, this Partnership was the most far-sighted, cutting-edge, break-through idea. And if you look at the documents of 15 years ago, even today they are relevant. They were way ahead of their time.” Yet, he said, “What we found in our study is that in order to continue to lead and serve as a model partnership, it needs to be restructured and transformed.”

The re-evaluation is part of a comprehensive review of all its programs that Federation began undertaking in the last five years, first under the chairmanship of Stanley Gold, and then more intensely when Jay Sanderson was hired to fill Federation’s top professional position, becoming president in January 2010. Federation traditionally has been a funding umbrella for the Jewish community, but its campaign of roughly $40 million has been relatively flat through the last decade.

“When Stanley and I first got involved, one of the issues we addressed was where does Federation spend its money. Does a program get Federation money just because it got funded last year?” said Richard Sandler, who served as vice chair with Gold and is now Federation chairman, the top lay leadership post. “I came into this position first and foremost as a donor, and as a donor I want to know where my money is going, and whether it is being spent in a way that makes the greatest impact.”

While the evaluation was taking place over the last 18 months, Federation suspended all Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership programs except for the school twinning and the master class. The lay steering committee and chairmanship of the Partnership has also been dissolved both in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.

Federation is in the process of convening a group of lay leaders and professionals to examine which programs will continue, which will expand, which will get cut and what new programs might be added.

Sanderson and a large team of top Federation professionals met in June with lay leaders in Los Angeles, and he is meeting in August with leaders in Israel.

“Once we have new leadership in Tel Aviv, and we have some new thinking and new ideas and new people, then we will reconstitute the Partnership in a way where we can look at creating programs that speak to our new priorities and integrate into our work,” Sanderson said.

The Reut Institute believes the international Partnership model is a key element in a successful Jewish future, and is deeply involved in supporting and shoring up the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000, recently renamed Partnership2Gether, or P2G. When Grinstein heard that the L.A. Federation was re-evaluating its partnership, he offered to conduct a study. Reut interviewed more than 50 participants in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv last summer, absorbing the cost of the study.

The study found that the Partnership can continue to hold great relevance and enrich both communities.

“For this to happen, there needs to be much greater focus on partnership and mutuality around a much smaller number of bigger efforts, because one of the things we have heard from many, many people is that the Partnership is not creating the critical mass of value for the communities,” Grinstein said. “It creates a lot of value for those that participate in the different activities, but not necessarily for the wider community.”

The report also recommended that the two cities identify and focus on common narratives — such as the entertainment industry or Jewish innovation and creative spirituality.

The report suggests integrating the partnership into Federation’s overall vision and focusing its diverse programs into a unified vision.

To date, the Partnership has served as an umbrella for many diverse efforts. Jewish Family Service introduced Tel Aviv to its Café Europa, a social and resource program for Holocaust survivors, and the cities regularly exchanged social workers to learn from each other’s best practices. A health initiative involved Tel Aviv University and UCLA, and medical exchanges involved major hospitals in both cities.

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