by Julie Wolf


They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, then consider us flattered. About five years ago, after plenty of legwork by Malka Young, LICSW, Director of Community Impacts at JFS, and Mindee Meltzer, now the director of Camp Tevya in Brookline, N.H., and with funding from CJP, JFS of Metrowest pioneered the program that evolved into the Jewish Family Network (JFN) partnership with the JCCs of Greater Boston. Since then, JFN has identified more than 1,000 families in the Metrowest area who participate in our programs and often establish connections with other families in the Jewish community. We’ve done this using a connector model, with four moms with at least one child under age 5 serving as our ambassadors to communities based on geography (North, Central, South Metrowest) or cultural background (Russian Jewish). Connectors aren’t volunteers but paid, part-time employees of JFS.

JFN Connectors Diane Anderson, Amy Kohen, and Luba Olshan, with JCC Family Programming Coordinator Penni Rochwerger and JFN Director of Community Impacts Malka Young. (Not pictured: Nissa Weiss and Sasha Grebenyuk.)

JFS developed the curriculum to train the connectors, and the agency worked closely with the JCC to develop the Welcome Baby! program, a key part of our outreach strategy. Each item in the much-loved gift basket was chosen carefully: What items would be best for welcoming babies and their families into the Jewish community? Since then, our model has been replicated around the Boston area and on the north and south shores. And it’s extended far beyond Massachusetts. We have been extremely gratified to receive calls from Montreal, Denver, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., community organizers there all wanting to know more about what we do here in the Boston area.

But we were never more pleased than when a call came from Horim Bamercaz (Parents at the Center) in Haifa, Boston’s sister city. Parents at the Center had heard about our connector model and hoped to replicate it in their diverse city in Israel, with a focus on reaching out to all area parents of young children, regardless of background. Central to the Haifa organization’s goal was the establishment of a program similar to Welcome Baby!, which they will call Welcome ParentThis past spring, Malka traveled to Haifa to work with the Center director, Hila Perlman, training connectors and adapting JFN’s curriculum to make it accessible and relevant to Israelis.

Hila and Malka outside  

Malka Young and Hila Perlman 

Now Haifa has its own versions of Amy (North), Nissa (Central), Diane (South), and Sasha (Russian Jewish). Osnot, Elham, Suhair, and Luda represent the different groups of Israeli families that live in two neighborhoods of Haifa, Kiryat Eliezer and Bat Galim: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Russians of varying religious affiliations (if any). During their training, they learned different ways of connecting with people and what it means to be welcoming and inclusive, and also how to create a community where each individual and family is valued for who they are. The goal of Horim Bamercaz isn’t a small one: Parents at the Center wants its newly trained connectors to become models of outreach and inclusion for all of Israel.

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Parents at the Center is one of several programs that are part of the Boston-Haifa Connection. Harvey Lowell, the president and CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, developed and sustained this and other programs in Haifa together with Ariel Libhaber, the assistant director of the Boston-Haifa Connection. To learn more about Parents and the Center and the collaboration between the Boston-Haifa Connection and Jewish Family Network, we spoke with Ariel and Leslie Pucker, a dedicated and tireless CJP volunteer who helped Malka train the staff in Israel. 

Ariel Libhaber grew up between Argentina, Israel, and South Africa. As a sociologist, he says  that his work for the Boston-Haifa Connection has been a perfect fit for his particular skills and interests. “I always had a passion for Israel and wanted to make a difference through my work,” he says. “Working for the Boston-Haifa Connection allows me to combine all my skills and passions through meaningful work that brings about real change in both communities and helps develop long-lasting relationships.”


Leslie Pucker’s first real exposure to volunteer work in the Jewish community was through The Rashi School, where her daughters, now 16 and 13, were students. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, Leslie, LICSW, was a medical social worker. But once she was home with her kids, the volunteering bug bit, and she began to devote her time at the school, focusing on social justice, and at Families First Parenting Programs, a Cambridge-based nonprofit which provides parenting education programs to underserved populations. Two years ago, after participating in CJP’s Cynthia and Leon Shulman Acharai Leadership Program, she was invited to co-chair Parents at the Center. Like Ariel, Leslie was thrilled to be able to use her skills and training for such meaningful work. “Parents at the Center offers a unique opportunity for me to combine my social work background, experience in parenting programs, and my desire to be connected to Israel.”

JFN: Let’s start with you, Leslie. Both you and Ariel seem to be motivated by a strong connection to community and Israel. Have you always volunteered in the Jewish community?

LESLIE: I grew up in a Jewish family but didn’t have much exposure to Jewish tradition until meeting my husband, who was raised in a more observant family and who attended day school. My Jewish learning and identification began in a more meaningful way when we had children and sent them to a temple preschool and then to The Rashi School. I’ve learned about Jewish traditions along with my children, and also studied Hebrew and participated in Me’ah, [CJP’s intensive two-year program that offers a core literacy in Jewish culture and civilization, leading to a broader knowledge of Jewish history, values, and ideas in 100 hours].

JFN: Ariel, can you tell us about the longtime collaboration between Haifa and Boston, and specifically how the Parents at the Center project came about?

ARIEL: Boston and Haifa have been collaborating for 25 years, tackling the most challenging issues that we face and helping each other make a difference together. Through a proven track record of collaboration and impact, we have developed a partnership based on mutual trust that allows us to embark on large-scale projects that affect Haifa and Israel at large. Our volunteers in Boston and Haifa, as well as our key professional partners in the Haifa Municipality, represent a group of highly dedicated people who work on areas such as education, Jewish identity, social justice, leadership development, and immigrant integration.

Parents at the Center is an ambitious effort to make Haifa the best city in Israel in which to raise children. Through a network of integrated social and education services, professional coordination, and parent leadership and participation, we are providing parents of young children with the necessary tools to avoid social risk and help their children achieve their maximum potential.

This unique approach to risk prevention focuses on providing universal access, in a multiculturally sensitive way, to all parents of young children (from birth to 6 years of age) in the struggling neighborhoods of Kiryat Eliezer and Bat Galim. Ultimately, this model of parental empowerment is building a stronger community as a whole.

JFN: What were some similarities you observed between parents here and in Israel? 

LESLIE: There are many universal issues that parents in both the U.S. and Israel deal with — work/family balance, sleeping issues, nutrition, discipline, just to name a few. Parents at the Center offers lectures to the Haifa community. The most well-attended lecture thus far was given by Israel’s equivalent of the “Super Nanny.” While there are many commonalities in parenting across cultures and religions, we were also sensitive to differences.

ARIEL: In many cases we face similar challenges, especially dealing with vulnerable populations: access to education, employment, social services, immigrant integration. 

When it comes to youth-at-risk, the trend in Israel has been to focus on remedial interventions for children. Our collaboration tackles the problem by changing the approach toward the parents and focusing on strengthening their assets to be better equipped to raise their children. We are also working directly with the professionals in the city who work with families to lower barriers for accessing services as well as shifting the paradigm to a whole-family approach that starts with the parents and not only looks at the child in isolation, especially at such a critical young age.

The learning is that we have a lot to learn from each other, and we know that we are stronger together than apart.

LESLIE: For instance, Malka is sharing her expertise in Welcome Baby! and Jewish Family Network with Parents at the Center staff in Haifa. It was exciting to see the Haifa staff as they learned about the program and brainstormed creative ways to make it their own. Welcome Parent offers an excellent first touchpoint for parents to learn about the services, programs, and opportunities available through Parents at the Center.

Horim B'Merkaz Mural  

The back of the new center. This mural was a joint project painted by Boston volunteers and Israeli parents who participate in Horim Bamercaz. 

JFN: Ariel, what do you hope will be the lasting impact of Welcome Parent and other programs like it at Parents at the Center?

ARIEL: Nearly 1,000 parents have heard our lectures; more than 150 families have participated in direct services programs; we have trained almost 100 professionals in a little over a year of programming. We have already seen indicators of new knowledge, attitudes, and skills for engagement and collaboration among parents and professionals, as well as better understanding of early childhood development and developmental stages. Parents have reported feeling more supported, more empowered to face the challenges of caring for babies; and they tell us they are playing and reading with their children more frequently. However, our most encouraging indicator is that new families are arriving to our programs, and many who have participated already remain engaged and are asking for more.

The program is growing in Haifa, and in the fall we will open a beautiful center for parents and children. The program is also being evaluated by professional independent researchers, and we hope that through our national and international partners, we will be able to see this revolutionary model rolled out in other communities in Israel and beyond.

JFN: Leslie, from your perspective, how has the Jewish community here at home been important to you, and what do you hope will be the lasting impact of the Haifa program? How has your volunteer work with Parents at the Center affected your own connection to Israel and to the community there? 

LESLIE: Personally, one of my family’s greatest sources of community has been through the connections and friendships we have developed at The Rashi School. In addition, I’ve developed wonderful connections through my involvement with CJP, and I am now expanding this community to Haifa.

My family and I had the privilege of spending 11 months living in Jerusalem about five years ago, my first — and longest — trip to Israel. I love returning there to reconnect with the friends we made during our time in Jerusalem. Through Parents at the Center, I now have a meaningful and wonderful reason to return to Israel and an opportunity to learn about and explore Haifa and meet so many incredible people.  

Parents at the Center fosters community building across religions and cultures. CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection is seeking to change the fabric of life in two Haifa neighborhoods and to shape a new Israel where parents have the supports in place to raise children who will become active members of Israeli society.

Learn how you can connect to the Jewish community yourself on both sides of the ocean:

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