On Dec. 12, Birmingham and Rosh Ha’Ayin marked the 30th anniversary of what arguably is the most successful relationship to come out of Project Renewal. Now sister cities on the municipal level, ties between the two have gone far beyond the initial program started by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the early 1980s to deal with long-neglected development towns in Israel.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell and Rosh Ha’Ayin Mayor Moshe Sinai spoke at the Israel Bonds event at Temple Beth-El, which was held jointly with the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation.
Lisa Engel, one of the evening’s honorees, introduced the mayors, giving her perspective as someone who has been working on the partnership from the beginning.
In 1981 she had just married, and she and husband Alan went on a Federation young leadership mission, her first trip to Israel. “We were totally unprepared when our bus pulled up to the gleaming new Kimerling Center in Rosh Ha’Ayin.”
At the time, Rosh Ha’Ayin was a community of 14,000, mostly immigrants who began walking to Israel from Yemen in 1949, just after the state was declared. Israel sent airplanes for them, something the Yemenites didn’t know existed. Some were reluctant to board until they were reminded of the Biblical prophecy that they would return to the land “on wings of eagles.”
In the late 1970s, Max and Tillie Kimerling contributed the funds to build the community center. Five years ago, the center was renovated and expanded.
During the 1981 visit, Engel related, “we were overwhelmed by the severe needs of our Yemenite brothers and sisters, and we proclaimed we would be back.”
Birmingham hasn’t left since.
A five-year campaign in Birmingham raised $1.5 million, “and just as important, a people-to-people connection” including the first of many visits by the world-renowned Rosh Ha’Ayin Mandolin Girls Orchestra. The inaugural concert, also at Beth-El, drew a full house and was recorded for broadcast on local public radio.
As part of the concert, Birmingham was presented with an ornate Yemenite Torah that has been housed at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, where in the 1980s it was read from regularly, and used on some other occasions, including a United Synagogue regional convention in Atlanta.
A camp counselor exchange began between the communities, and Rosh Ha’Ayin became a mandatory stop on every Birmingham mission to Israel. By the early 1990s, then-mayor Yigal Yosef told visiting groups that the hills surrounding the town would soon be filled with new neighborhoods and the town would triple in size.
While many were skeptical, that is exactly what happened. New neighborhoods were built for immigrants from the former Soviet Union and for retired military; industrial parks were built and Rosh Ha’Ayin became a bedroom community of 40,000, strategically located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
An ongoing challenge is integrating the newcomers with the Yemenite community; last year’s visit by four New Orleans chefs for the dedication of a new promenade was regarded as the first major event that brought out all segments of the community.
Though Project Renewal faded, the relationship did not. The communities continued through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000, adding New Orleans to the mix. In 2005, Birmingham became an official sister city with Rosh Ha’Ayin, in a unique ceremony that also involved both communities pairing with al-Karak, Jordan.
Engel said today the relationship is a “partnership of equals,” with both communities benefiting from the ties.
Bell recalled planting a small sapling in Rosh Ha’Ayin on his first visit there, and “the tallest one (in the park) was no more than two or three feet.” On his most recent visit, “that little tree and those other saplings were tall trees.”
He said Rosh Ha’Ayin has “people who are resilient, willing to take a stand, who are willing to stand on sacred ground and protect it, but more importantly, to make it thrive.”
He thanked “the entire Jewish community for being who you are in the city of Birmingham,” speaking of “a better day for our kids,” and “blazing a path for future greatness” for Birmingham and Rosh Ha’Ayin.
Sinai said there may be 6,000 miles between the two communities, but “in practical terms there is no distance at all. I feel here at home amongst friends and amongst family.”
Birmingham “helped Rosh Ha’Ayin to become more,” Sinai said, noting that it is now the most-awarded city in Israel, from education to management, volunteerism and the environment, and is known as Israel’s city of music.
Noting the Kimerling Center, Sinai said “everybody in Rosh Ha’Ayin… they know somewhere over the ocean there is a community that is committed to Rosh Ha’Ayin and the safety of the state of Israel.”
As part of the evening, the Federation presented the Joanie Plous Bayer Young Leadership Award to Hilary Gewant, the Susan Goldberg Distinguished Volunteer Award to Lisa Engel, and the Foundation presented the N.E. Miles Lifetime Achievement Award to Pat Weil.
Operation Grassroots was also promoted, the Federation’s initiative to access a challenge grant by achieving 1,000 new gifts of $100 or more, or individual campaign increases of $100 or more.