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Israelis Find Philly Lessons

August 12, 2010 By:
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Shir Ben-Gigi doesn't mind that the only thing most people seem to know about her hometown of Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev -- if they know anything at all -- is that it overlooks a giant crater.

The 25-year-old offspring of Moroccan immigrants to Israel acknowledged that, apart from that natural wonder, there's really not much reason to go there.

While children in Tel Aviv grow up in a global city and can have access to first-rate education, children in the so-called "development towns" often attend underperforming schools, have fewer job options and, on the whole, can feel cut off from the rest of Israel, she explained.

"It's a beautiful place, but it's hard to live there," Ben-Gigi said over lunch at Glatt Delight in Center City. She is just starting a stint at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, and hoping, over the course of a career in national government, to affect change, and lower the gaps between the haves and haves-not in Israel.

That's largely what brought her to Philadelphia last week.

Ben-Gigi was one of 13 members of an Israeli program called Atidim Cadets for Public Service who spent three weeks in the United States, including one in Philadelphia. The group was expected to learn about local, state and federal government -- and how the U.S. approach might apply to the Jewish state -- and perhaps develop a keener sense of the American Jewish community and the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

"We want to see about the differences, and what we can take from here and make it better in Israel," said Shiran Barzilai, a law student from Tiberias.

Atidim (the word atid is Hebrew for "future"), which gets some Israeli government funding, as well as money from the Jewish Agency for Israel and other donations, is aimed at creating opportunities for students from Israel's economic periphery and enticing young people to give government service a try.

Yonatan Deckel, 28, an army officer now working in the Israeli Prime Minister's office, said of his career move: "This is the right place where I want to continue my work with Israeli society."

In exchange for a full scholarship to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the chance to complete a master's degree in public policy, participants agree to five years of public service, and tend to serve in central government ministries.

Only 25 students are admitted each year to the program. Each group participates in at least one trip to the United States.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which hosted the students during their stay here, doesn't support the cadets program directly. But it recently allocated $53,000 to a pre-Atidim program for high school students in Netivot and Sedot Negev. Two current participants are supported by a gift from Joan Stern, who-co-chairs Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, in honor of Miriam Gafni, a Philadelphia communal leader killed in a 1994 automobile accident in Israel.

While here, the group met Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, District Attorney Seth Williams and Zack Stalberg, the longtime chief of the Philadelphia Daily News who now heads the Committee of 70, a government watchdog group.

Stalberg said that he told the group to focus on the nitty-gritty of delivering services and making government more efficient, rather than on ideology or grand societal change.

"I was trying to get them interested in what happens at the ground level," said Stalberg, a native Jewish Philadelphian.

Dima Cypan, 25, an accounting major who was born in the former Soviet Union and grew up in Kiryat Gat, Israel, said that "not only as an employee of the Ministry of Finance, but as a public worker, the trip has expanded my horizons to a different way of managing a country."


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