St. Louis, Atlanta raise a virtual toast of partnership with sister city in Israel

An image from Yokneam.

BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

More than 6,000 miles and eight time zones separate St. Louis from the Yokneam-Megiddo region in Israel, but the distance hasn’t stopped the communities from regularly celebrating holidays together. The sister cities participated in their latest Zoom get-together last week, two days before Passover. Along for the virtual festivities, including a pre-holiday toast, was Yokneam-Megiddo’s other sister city, Atlanta.

More than 70 people from the partner cities joined in. The “virtual village” gathering has been a regular holiday event for the past two years.

St. Louis and Atlanta have been sister cities with Yokneam-Megiddo since the 1990s as part of the Partnership 2000 initiative of the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities.

According to the Partnership 2000 Facebook page, the city of Yokneam and the 13 rural settlements Megiddo Regional Council in the Lower Galilee, Israel became partnered “in 1995 with its main goal to develop ongoing relations between the Jewish Communities of St. Louis/Atlanta and the residents of Yokneam-Megiddo – getting to know first-hand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, culture and above all, people.”

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Eric Robbins, CEO of Jewish Federation of Atlanta, kicked off the recent pre-Passover Zoom by reporting some hopeful signs as the world slowly emerges from pandemic hibernation.

“We have some positive things happening,” he said. “We have a trip [to Israel] coming in a few weeks and, a year from now, some gap year teen programs.”

One of the goals of the sister city program is to encourage travel to Israel, which is expected to increase. Participants in the virtual village holiday gatherings can help welcome their long-distance friends who make the trip, said Eliad Eliyahu, the Federation representative of Atlanta and St. Louis stationed in Israel.

“When people come to visit in the Yokneam and Megiddo region, they will have home hospitality,” Eliyahu said. “It can be for three days, like the Israel bound visits that the teens sleep at an Israel home, or just for dinner.”

Robbins said the Shinshinim program also is continuing, in which 18-year-old Israeli emissaries defer their army service for one year to volunteer in Jewish communities in the U.S.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you all in person soon, looking forward to the Shinshimin and seeing the smiling faces of [Jewish Federation of St. Louis President and CEO] Brian Herstig and all our St. Louis friends,” Robbins said.

Herstig spoke next, comparing the hopeful end of COVID sheltering to “coming out of our own Exodus. I’m very proud of the work we are collectively doing and you all who are living in Yokneam have been doing.”

In addition to its role as an Israeli tech start-up mecca, Yokneam and Megiddohave been welcoming Jewish refugees from Ethiopia and Ukraine, aided by the St. Louis and Atlanta federations.

“I’m so proud to work with a place that opens their homes so much, that is a part of what of what makes Yokneam-Megiddo so special,” Herstig said.

The sister cities partnership is just one of 45 around the world that creates connections among regions and cities in Israel with sister cities.

Eliyahu said calls like this help continue building connections between the sister cities.

“The feedback is amazing, and many people participate and share with a lot of pride that they are belong to the partnership,” Eliyahu said. “This time we had 74 participants. We also think it is a great opportunity to maintain this connection between the communities with a simple and meaningful gathering.”

Learn more about the Partnership 2000 sister cities program by joining its Facebook group.