KARMIEL, Israel — When the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon first exploded, Hanna Kovel called Pittsburgh.
As the CEO and city manager of Karmiel, Kovel had just asked the city’s street cleaners to distribute food to shelters for needy families — a necessary task in times of peace as well as war — but she was worried.
“There were 30 bombs falling on the city every day, and these workers were traveling all over the city,” she said, sitting in her office in Karmiel’s city hall this week. “I felt responsible. At least I could buy the protective jackets and helmets.”
But the government was preoccupied, and no funding came through. So Kovel picked up the phone and called Pittsburgh. “It was the first thing that came to my mind. I called our friends at Partnership 2000, and there was no hesitation,” she said. Almost immediately, Kovel was allowed the $30,000 necessary for the equipment.
Today, she looks back on that memory fondly.
“Just the knowledge that when you need someone, you have a friend, is good,” she said.
In her office on the third floor of city hall, in the center of Karmiel (“It’s the heart of the city,” she said), Kovel may be the most intimately involved person with Partnership 2000 who doesn’t actually work for the program. As city manager, she oversees the planning and development of Karmiel — including the many projects that have popped up in the city due to contributions from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
Leaders of Partnership 2000 often speak of the importance of the program’s people-to-people connections and how they create a bond between the communities — a factor Kovel stresses as well — but the physicality of the relationship is obvious in the city. Bomb shelters were created through the partnership, as was a bike trail (more to come on that). Just this week, the J’Burgh group visiting Karmiel spent two days painting the entire courtyard area of an apartment complex inhabited largely by immigrants — a segment of the city’s population comprising 40 percent of Karmiel’s nearly 50,000 citizens. In a bustling metropolis, such small additions might go unnoticed, but Karmiel is a small, new city.
Karmiel leaders also speak of the directness of Partnership 2000’s monetary donations, as projects are decided by the steering committees of both communities.
“The money that’s coming to Karmiel and Misgav from Pittsburgh is great,” said Leviah Shalev-Fisher, communications director of Karmiel. “It’s not like giving money the Jewish Agency, which decides what to do with the money. [Pittsburgh and Karmiel Misgav] decide together where the money goes. It’s not ‘you give, we take, goodbye.’”
And as Karmiel is “a young city,” said Kovel, those projects are noticed. “Karmiel is unique in that it’s a city with the almost the shortest history in Israel,” she said.
Karmiel was founded in 1964, constructed to create a stronger Jewish presence in the northern region of Israel between the upper and lower Galilee. Whether the move to establish Karmiel was made specifically to monitor the already large Arab population in the region is a topic often debated by the city’s residents.
True or false, though, Karmiel is undeniably surrounded by non-Jews — Arab villages, some with populations as high as 15,000, dot the hills, and are visible from nearly any vantage point in the city.
Though Karmiel maintains “a good relationship with the Arabs, it’s unique,” as Kovel said, there is a certain distance between Jews and Arabs.
Jews in Karmiel generally travel to the Arab villages only for “shopping on Saturday, because the stores here are closed, and [for] the best hummus,” said 26-year-old Shir Lang of Karmiel.
That facet of life is starting to change, however, especially among the Jewish villages in Misgav, the region surrounding Karmiel, as schools cohabitated with Jewish and Arab students do exist.
The most striking feature about Karmiel, though, may be its obvious newness. The bright, tree-filled city is fresh and clean; pollution seems nonexistent, as does traffic, worn buildings and graffiti. A large park, less than a decade old, sits next to city hall and features dozens of sculptures — all laid in the grass, all spiraling around a waterfall. The air is crisp; the flowers are bright.
Karmiel recently launched its slogan, ligdol v’ligadel (“to grow and develop”) to temper the city’s newness with a sense that there’s more change to come. To Kovel, the city’s branding must reach out to “young families, not youngsters,” she said. “We’ve been the Miami Beach of the mountains — an older population. We can’t compete with Tel Aviv, so we say go ahead [young Israelis], travel after the army, live in Tel Aviv, but when you are ready to settle and raise a family, come back to us.”
That’s a familiar sentiment for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, which, through programs such as J’Burgh and Shalom Pittsburgh, works and struggles to keep young Jews in the city. But in Karmiel, which is still finding its identity, second- or third-generation Jews are even more crucial to not only the population’s growth, but also its subsistence.
Karmiel’s relationship with Pittsburgh through Partnership 2000, then, is “an excellent project,” said Kovel. “It speaks about people, not about the things in the mass media that everyone reads about everyday. It’s slow progress, but this is something good.”
A facet of the city’s identity rests in the touches brought by Jews of Pittsburgh, and the relationships forged, helping Karmiel plant its roots deeper.
And it’s working, said Kovel: “There is a generation of people in Karmiel now who grew up with the knowledge of American Jewry, and that’s from Pittsburgh.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)