A Q&A with Yerucham Mayor Michael Biton
More than six years ago, Miami’s Jewish community established a long-term partnership with the Israeli town of Yerucham, located in the Negev Desert. Michael Biton, Yerucham’s mayor, was recently in the U.S. and stopped in Miami to discuss the past six years of partnership and what’s ahead for the Miami-Yerucham connection.
Q: You recently spoke at the JCCs of North America Professional Conference on building a partnership with Israeli cities. What did you tell the JCC representatives who attended from all over the U.S.?
A: It was a practical discussion. It takes at least two very devoted partners, here and overseas, working together. If there’s only one partner, it will never happen. The relationship between the partners is about friendship and love and family. It’s beyond professional and strategic thinking, which is important, but peoplehood and Jewish identity is the work of the soul. What we created here in Miami, it’s an unbelievable model.
Q: What connects our two cities that makes this model so successful?
A: Miami is struggling to maintain Jewish identity and how to strengthen Jewish peoplehood. How to educate the next generation of leaders and about Tikkun Olam. Surprisingly, this is also the struggle of Yerucham. How to educate the next generation to commit themselves to Israeli society, to Tikkun Olam, how to develop and strengthen the community. So we share mutual challenges. In each place they are different; some are unique to Miami, some are unique to us, but we are relevant to each other.
Q: What can the people of Miami do to help combat these struggles?
A: First of all, they are doing it already. Federation directly invests in Yerucham annually. But partnership isn’t only about money. It’s about people. Just come and visit. Be a partner. Come and volunteer. And whenever you are ready to do something for Israel through Federation, the best place to do that, and the best place for Israeli society is Yerucham.
Q: Why do you think Miami and Yerucham are so devoted to this partnership?
A: There is a miracle that is called Jewish life. A Moroccan guy from Yerucham whose parents speak Arabic can meet an Ashkenazi guy in Miami, whose parents are Holocaust survivors and another Jewish guy who had to move out of Venezuela recently in one room, and sometimes they don’t even speak the same language, but somewhere in their hearts and bodies, there is a desire to connect. Something that goes thousands of years back; something you don’t even understand until it happens. There’s no rational explanation why Jews are so connected, why they are so devoted, but it’s there.
Q: It has been more than six years since Miami and Yerucham began its partnership with one another. How do you think that relationship has grown in the past six years?
A: Miami joined Yerucham when it was in a fragile situation. The education services were low, the feeling among its people was not so great and there was negative immigration. Six years from that moment, a lot of it because of Miami, Yerucham is growing. We’ve added 5 percent into our population, we’ve built hundreds of houses and apartments for the first time after 15 years of a frozen real estate market. Because of Miami, we’re building a hotel.
Because of Miami we are the leaders in Israel in terms of youth activity. This is very specific achievement of Miami, because it is massively invested in that.
Q: What would you like to see happen in the next several years with regards to the Miami-Yerucham partnership?
A: In the next few years, I would like to see that maybe 2, 3, or 5,000 Jews from Miami visited Yerucham, spent time there, volunteered, learned. At the same time, most of my community is aware and involved and committed to the partnership on all levels. So my dream for the next several years is that the number of people who are impacted by this partnership will grow and it will be a celebration of Jewish friendship and support for Israel.
Q: What else would you like your partners in Miami to know?
A: We are celebrating six years of partnership. We can be proud of what we accomplished and we can and should define new directions and new strategic plans for both sides of the partnership. Our family is making a difference in Israeli society where it should be done, in the periphery, in the Negev, in Yerucham.
And to any person that involves and commits themselves to Israel, I would like to thank you on behalf of the people of Yerucham.