By Barbara Crook – Partnership 2Gether
(OJB) – I did not find my 2020 Chanukah miracle at a party, in a synagogue, or even in my latke-scented kitchen.
In fact, I was alone in my house when it happened. Alone – except for 100 other individuals and families from across Canada and the Upper Galilee, who came together over a magical Zoom call to light candles on the first day of Chanukah, and to remind us that the Jewish people can always find a way to connect.
For once in the Zoom world, the computer screen was not a poor substitute for human interaction. And after months of seeing faces that looked like mug shots, every single person was engaged and smiling so broadly that our faces were in danger of breaking.
In fact, we could never have done this kind of gathering in person, even in pre-COVID times. It was a Chanukah blessing we never quite anticipated.
I’m the Canadian co-chair of the Coast-to-Coast Partnership of Partnership 2Gether (P2G). Our partnership connects six Jewish communities in Canada – Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and the Atlantic Provinces – with Israelis in the Galilee Panhandle, near Israel’s border with Lebanon.
Our Israeli partners are from Kiryat Shmona, Metulla, Galil Elyon, Mevo’ot HaHermon and Yesod HaMa’ala. Some are city dwellers while others live on kibbutzim and moshavim.
In a normal year, representatives from the 11 communities, including the five Israeli mayors, meet in Canada in the spring and Israel in the fall. We get updates on our joint projects in Israel, plan new projects and partnerships, and enjoy home hospitality.
Many of our elementary and high schools are partnered with schools in the Upper Galilee, and most years there is some kind of exchange – mifgash – in which students visit their pen pals in person.
Then came COVID-19 and multiple lockdowns in both countries. Face-to-face meetings were out, many schools became virtual, and parents and teachers in both countries were burning out.
But we determined to stay in contact and fulfil our mandate of Gesher Chai – the “living bridge” connecting our communities
We took advantage of Zoom to increase our meetings, and organized webinars featuring Israeli experts in such areas as community resilience, social mobility and Israeli politics and security.
Our projects are still going strong, despite COVID restrictions and recurring lockdowns in Israel.
Our funding of Mashabim, the Community Stress Prevention Centre in Kiryat Shmona, has allowed high school principals, teachers and guidance counsellors to work with experts and to share best practices about fostering resilience during COVID.
Derech Ruach (Journey of the Spirit) is in its second year teaching high school students philosophy and literature at Tel Hai College. The 60-odd students in the two cohorts easily adapted to virtual classes when necessary, and didn’t blink at the idea of four hours of classes after a long school day.
And when the Grade 3 and 4 students in the region could physically connect in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) labs that we helped establish, they designed and built innovative products and projects, with the teachers acting only as supervisors.
And then came our Chanukah virtual mifgash, organized by lay leaders and professionals in both countries. I had no hand in planning it, and didn’t know what to expect.
I saw some familiar faces and some new ones. And then more people kept signing on. And more, until there were 101 screens on the call. There were babes in arms, there were people in their 70s, and every age in between.
Teacher Hadas Elimelech and some of her Grade 6 students from Hameganim School in Kiryat Shmona did a lovely presentation in English, then lit the first candle as we joined in the blessings.
My Israeli co-chair, Shaul Zohar, who teaches tennis to children and adults of all physical and developmental abilities, made a menorah by drilling holes in the handle of a tennis racket, and did a courtside candle-lighting with his students.
And the Grade 4 class at Talmud Torah in Edmonton, led by Ben Ragosin, played a charming Chanukah song on their glockenspiels.
The Chanukah mifgash was all of 23 minutes long. It turned a day of isolation and stress into a day of joy that resonates to this day.
It connected friends and strangers, adults and children, Canadians and Israelis, in a ceremony that celebrated light and banished darkness. It reminded us that even in this pandemic, we are stronger together.
This article was reprinted with permission of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.