A StL-Israeli Sister-City Sampler
Sara Winkelman & family on a Sabbatical in Israel visit a new and growing Yokneam.
by Sara Winkelman
As former coordinator of Partnership 2000, a sister city program pairing North American cities with cities in Israel, it was good to be back as a tourist in Yokneam, St. Louis' sister city.
I had not been back in seven years and it was breathtaking to see how much Yokneam has grown. The economy is thriving, home values have tripled, and the city is replete with a new community center, new schools and big homes. Yokneam is indeed a terrific example of the way in which Israel has become an almost overnight high-tech marvel in the last few years.
My husband, Rabbi Hyim Shafner, our three children Benjamin (12), Yonah (11) and Hava (8) and I are spending six months in Jerusalem on sabbatical. We recently traveled to Yokneam in the north of Israel, staying over night there and spending the day visiting Yokneam's new high-tech parks, community centers, and meeting with politicians and families.
Though neither of us works directly with Yokneam, being Jewish professionals from St. Louis, we felt we should go as ambassadors to Yokneam. In addition I have people in Yokneam I know from my years as the St. Louis Jewish Federation’s P2K (Partnership 2000) coordinator. My old friends wanted to see me, to catch up and show off the city, one of the fastest growing in Israel.
Our family started the day in Yokneam with a visit to Marvell, one of the largest high-tech companies in Yokneam, a successful international semiconductor producer where my cousin, Karen Levine, works. Karen showed us Marvell's 300-person Yokneam research and development facility and treated us to lunch at the company's kosher cafeteria. Part of Yokneam's success as a growing high-tech region is due to the vision and planning of its Mayor Simon Alfassi, who with the help of Partnership 2000, was able to secure special tax status for new companies moving into the reigon. In addition, Israel’s new north-south superhighway – Highway number 6 – now runs right through the area.
One of the highlights of our Yokneam visit was spending time with Shalev Seeree and his family. Our son, Yonah, was the connection to this wonderful Tunisian-Moroccan family. Shalev and Yonah have been pen pals for several years through the Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis and the Hatikvah School in Yokneam as part of the Partnership 2000 Program, Kesher B’Kitah (Connections in the Classroom).
The Seeree family, a Sephardic family from Elyakim, the moshav next to Yokneam, speaks only Hebrew. They have lived on the moshav for three generations on a beautiful plot of land the government gave them when their grandparents arrived from North Africa many years ago. Yonah is one of the few penpals to actually meet with his counterpart in Israel. When asked how it was to see face-to-face the Israeli boy behind the letters after several years of written coorespondence, Yonah commented, “Although he spoke no English and I only speak a little Hebrew, it was easy to play together. We like so many of the same things such as video games, basketball and facebook.“
Indeed the three Seeree children and our three children hit it off immediately playing games and laughing. The Seerees said they can not wait to have the opportunity one day to visit St. Louis.
Other highlights of our day and a half inYokneam included packing Passover food packages for needy families in the region along with local dedicated volunteers who were happy to have helpers from St. Louis, meeting with St. Louis' Otzma volunteers Max and Andi who are based in Yokneam for several months, and touring the recently established organic gardens in Yokneam. There were dual possiblities discussed with my husband and me. Hyim was asked to explore linking Bais Abraham Congregation’s new organic community garden with a counterpart in Yokneam. I was urged to make a connection to the St. Louis JCC-Hazon Tuv Ha'Aretz program.
My husband and I also met with Shimon Yifrakh, the director of the Yokneam JCC who was excited to begin exploring potential partnerships between Yokneam’s Matnas (community center) and the St. Louis Jewish Community Center.
Our entire family left the region inspired by the people we met and by the great things happening in the Yokneam region. We are very excited to begin pursuing some of the possibilities of furthering the already strong connections between the two communities.