Eleven-year-old Ezra Seegull had never been out of the country, and certainly not to Israel. But this past summer, he and his younger brother, Ronen, travelled with their parents, Diane and Larry, all the way across the ocean.
“It was amazing!” says Ezra, from his Reisterstown home, months after their trip to Israel. “We went all over the country, up north to the Golan and into the south. We went everywhere but Eilat!”
The experience took Ezra’s breath away, he says, and he cannot wait to return. The most meaningful part of his travels, however, was his trip to our sister city, Ashkelon.
The Seegulls decided they wanted their children to have a hands-on community service experience in Israel. Diane says she wanted the kids to have a chance to give back to the country and to understand that while their trip may take them to the most beautiful parts of our Jewish homeland, there are still many needs in Israel. She also wanted her children to experience Ashkelon.
Seegull called THE ASSOCIATED, and through our Partnership Director in Israel, Sigal Ariely, and Missions Director, Maia Hoffman, a hands-on project at Orr Shaolom was arranged. These types of projects are possible because of the close-ties between our sister cities, the new Stewart and Marlene Greenebaum Volunteer Center in Ashkelon and the volunteer coordinators on both sides of the ocean.
Orr Shaolom is a home for children-at-risk, whose parents could no longer keep them for any number of reasons. The youth are kept at the facility, where they are raised by a dorm mother, offered homework help and emotional counseling. The boys, of course, were told only the minimum. For them, meeting with the children of Orr Shaolom was more about exchanging cultures with their Israeli peers and doing a mitzvah.
“We made candy bags for children in the hospital,” says Ezra, who has pictures of himself with the Orr Shaolom children decorating bags and stuffing them with delicious treats. “I’m not fluent in Hebrew, but I know a little because of going to Beth Tfiloh [Dahan Community School], so I was able to interact.”
“I was so pleased to watch this – using their Hebrew and doing something that I know will stick,” says Mom. “We were so moved by the whole thing that Larry and I decided to make a gift to Orr Shaolom. Larry and I have always been involved in THE ASSOCIATED, but now we have a much deeper understanding of what it means to have a Sister City and we can better convey the importance to others.”
Ashkelon is a small city, says Diane, and it makes Baltimore’s impact strong and noticeable. She says she was thrilled to see the Lyn Stacie Getz Playground and the Nesher Ethiopian Teen Center that the Russel Family recently supported.
“It is so nice to go there and see something tangible,” says Diane. “When we put our resources into one area, the results are evident.”
She applauds the number of people who visit Ashkelon – over 1,000 from Baltimore in a given year, including hundreds of teens. She says having a sister city is good for Ashkelon, but it’s essential for us in Baltimore.
“Even though Israel is 6,000 miles away, we really felt connected with the people of Israel through Ashkelon and we need to make sure that connection holds,” says Diane. “It is such a special feeling to be a part of the global Jewish community and I just hope that everyone, one day, has a chance to experience it.”