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Leadership2Gether – Building our American and Israeli partnerships and family!

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(From Left) Conor Shapiro and Omri Ben-Natan in Charleston.

By Conor Shapiro

It was a great honor and a “heckuva” lot of fun to represent JCFR at the P2G Leadership 2Gether Retreat in Charleston, South Carolina, last May.

The 3-day itinerary was packed with local activities, structured programming, and belly-laughs with some energetic Israelis and Jewish Americans leaving me longing for additional time together. A deluge of rain descended Sunday morning as we wrapped up, capturing the mood, as many of us lingered in the lobby delaying our goodbyes.

But the preceding days were bright and sunny, and the itinerary maximized our exposure allowing us to immerse in historic Charleston (Shabbat as the sun set with a cool breeze overlooking the harbor…yes please!), while simultaneously cultivating meaningful friendships and discussing important Jewish topics and ideas.

Let me be blunt right out the gate: I had an absolute blast. If you have even an inkling of interest, I encourage you to apply without hesitation for this unforgettable program. Don’t think you’re too old, too young, or not Jewish enough. The program’s diversity and inclusivity are its strength. There may have been a 30 year-gap between the oldest and youngest participant, but when the two were paired together for an impromptu skit, it was one of the most indelible moments of the entire trip.

You may recall that my Israeli partner, Omri Ben-Natan and I had won the grand prize raising money for an upstart farm during our COVID-era Partnership Leadership2Gether program that I wrote about in the Reflector in August 2021.

This Charleston conference was the culmination of that experience, and it was time for the victors to meet face-to-face.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve slogged through the barrage of ZOOM meetings with the best of ‘em the last couple of years, but call me old-fashioned – there’s something more impactful about interacting in-person.

What drew me to the program was the appeal of connecting with an Israeli 1-1. I was very fortunate to be paired with Omri, whose candor and insights helped me better understand what it’s like to be Israeli. The larger sessions and personal development were icing on the cake.

I figured, if Omri was willing to sacrifice time away from his wife, daughters, and career as a corporate attorney in Tel Aviv for two weeks, well then, the least I could do was drive 6 hours south and meet him beachside. He greeted me with a hug and thanked me for making the trek. Despite being our guest in America, he gifted a basket of select organic jams, dates and spices he had lugged around the previous week.

I didn’t have the foresight or politesse to anticipate and therefore reciprocate the gift, so in my head I think that makes me…a putz! Or a shmuck!? See, I’m learning Hebrew in no time. I’m also learning how to improve my manners! But I will say that gesture is just a small indication of the kind of person Omri and the folks who traveled with him from Israel are like.

After an informal dinner Thursday evening to break the ice, we convened Friday for a tour of oldtown Charleston. We learned some history about the prolific Jewish community.

I had no idea Charleston was such a hospitable place for Jews in the 19th century. We spent a of couple hours at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, a beautiful Greek Revival Synagogue tucked away on Hasell Street in the heart of the French Quarter.

After sitting still for awhile, it felt great to stroll through the Charleston City Market and meet some other folks I hadn’t chatted with yet. It was Friday afternoon and the place was packed like Nate’s Bagels on a Sunday. I stood in awe of the passing draft horses shuttling tourists around at the intersections. An hour later we took a group ride ourselves and got to see even more of the beautiful old manors and palmetto and oak trees adorning historic Charleston.

Later that evening we basked in the fade of the sun and reflected by the water as the leaders held a light Kabbalat Shabbat. Some of the younger folks demonstrated some yoga poses and I did my best imitation which means I also did yoga…albeit my version may have looked quite a bit more like playing Twister drunk.

Hey, I gave it a shot.

The next day was primarily formal programming in the hotel where we delved into serious topics and split up into small groups.

These groups allowed us to dig a little deeper, challenge one another to hear a different vantage point, and develop closer connections.

We also attempted a couple light-hearted skits to bring some levity to the day. I don’t want to spoil the curriculum but suffice to say that it was a series of illuminating sessions and the breadth of life experiences shared by participants enriched it all the more.

Ultimately, we were tasked with planning an event around a Jewish holiday for the local community later in the year. I drew Sukkot, and I fully intend to fulfill my mission by hosting a gathering at my home in Manchester in October. Once I figure out what Sukkot is, that is.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Sukkot before the session so rest assured, I have my work cut out for me. But stay tuned because I will give it my best shot and hope to meet some new friends in the process.

On a personal note, I want to extend my gratitude to the JCFR for their continued investment and support. The diverse set of opportunities and programs they provide has really enriched my life in Richmond. As Richmonders, we are very lucky to have such a strong Jewish network and I will tell you that if a cultural, secular Jew like myself can find a place, you can too.

Oh, and I’ll be bringing some Richmond goodies back to Omri when I visit Israel next year. I’m no shmuck.

Leadership2Gether is one of the premier programs of our work with the Partnership2GETHER Hadera-Eiron Southeast Consortium US. This program offers a joint leadership study program consisting of groups of young professional adults in each community and across communities. The program takes advantage of current communication technology to engage Israelis and American paired together for a Hevruta (one on one learning sessions) through texts about their Jewish heritage and identity and their responsibilities as Jews to their own community and to the worldwide Jewish community. The program’s highlight event is a face-to-face meeting in a retreat format for a joint study experience, next year in Israel in May of 2023.

Recruitment is underway for the next cohort of L2G. If you would like to apply to have an experience like Conor, please contact Sara Rosenbaum, JCFR Chief Impact Officer, at 8045-545-8629 or srosenbaum@jewishrichmond.org.

See a few more photos from the conference.

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