The Timeliness of Tarbuton

by Tinamarie Bernard October 3, 2014


At the time of this writing, a fragile, open-ended truce, brokered by Egypt, is in effect between Israel and Gaza. What that means for long term peace is anyone’s guess. While Israel’s citizens and leaders repair homes and hearts after Operation Protective Edge, many Jews and supporters of Israel around the world are worrying about how to handle an age-old hatred that continues to be spewed in their direction. Anti-Semitism undoubtedly is flourishing, leaving many to question if the 1930s are again upon us.

But through determination and a desire to make a difference, we can continue to fend off rising tides of caustic criticism. The story of Tarbuton is the story of a homegrown nonprofit that has, for the past eight years, strengthened San Diego and the global Jewish community through Israeli cultural experiences and Hebrew language classes. It is a story about a program that, if replicated around the country, could play an important part in strengthening the U.S. diaspora’s relationship with Israel, especially among children and young adults.

Jennie Starr founded Tarbuton in 2006 and since then, she has been hard at work creating   authentic (and fun) Israeli arts, culture and athletic events, immersive Hebrew language classes for all ages, summer camps and more for our San Diego community. Each week, 200-300 San Diegans across the county from all denominations connect mind and soul to Israel through Tarbuton programming, and those numbers are increasing each year.

“I founded Tarbuton originally so my childrens’ Jewish experiences throughout their youth would be immersed with Israeli music, dance, Hebrew, Israelis and Jewish friends who are passionate about Israel,” Starr explains.

Starr is first-generation American, born to Israeli parents. As the programming began to grow, it turned out it wasn’t just the children who benefited from Starr’s desire to embrace a multi-national lifestyle.

Tarbuton enriches lives by getting families together to sing and dance or eat and laugh or learn and teach. These connections make a difference because they provide beautiful ways to build community outside the boundaries of religion and levels of observance. Through these programs, Tarbuton has created “a little Israel in our San Diego neighborhood,” that serves anyone and everyone passionate for Israel from afar.

“We cook, bake, sing, worry, celebrate and share our lives in San Diego and we support Israel from here together,” Starr says. “We often go together to AIPAC or JNF events, enjoy the Israeli plays we bring or volunteer together to enrich the Yom Ha’atzmaut, Zikaron Shoah or House of Israel lawn events.”

More importantly, she continues, “our children learn not to be bystanders but active participants sharing their passion for Israel with friends in their public schools and performing at ceremonies and festivals too.”

These are experiences that Starr cherishes, as do those who enjoy Tarbuton programming wherever it happens.

Tarbuton enriches my life in regards to Israel,” Galit Urich, board member and seven-year participant, says. “It gives me what I miss about Israel. It lets me recreate Israel here.

“It fills up the void,” she continues, “connecting families with the Jewish community at large and raising children in an Israeli environment learning Hebrew. I believe that language is the door that opens up to the culture.”

Thanks to the efforts of Tarbuton leadership, Hebrew language learning opportunities are popping up all over San Diego. For example, Tarbuton offers Hebrew story times in public libraries in Carmel Valley and Encinitas. Preschoolers can enjoy after-school enrichment programs at Temple Emanu-El in Del Cerro and elementary school-aged kids can enroll in Hebrew classes thanks to Kesher, another after school program built with Kavod, the Hebrew Charter School.

The Del Mar and Solana Beach School Districts now offer Hebrew language courses, and plans are underway to bring Hebrew into more San Diego public school districts.

Starr is quick to praise Tarbuton’s growing community advocates for their part in the group’s growth.

“We have new partners in North County; the Aleph Center in San Marcos and B’nai Tikvah in Carlsbad who have offered us space and we hope to build a program this fall for those living North of the 56,” she says.

Tarbuton recently moved its headquarters to The Ranch in Encinitas, from their original home at Congregation Beth El in UTC.

More growth opportunities came for Tarbuton recently when they received a NextGen grant from Federation to create programming for young adults based on their successful children’s programs.

“As we’ve done for years with our youth and families program,” Starr explains of the grant, “we now work on bridging the young adult community through Israeli culture with our new Young Adult Israeli Cultural Collaborative.”

Founding partners include the Ken Jewish Community and Congregations Emanu-El and Beth El.

“We’re excited about the possibilities and working with some of our most closely aligned partners who have supported our efforts to bring Israeli culture to San Diego for years.”

While excellent programming has garnered recognition, support and funding for Tarbuton, as with any nonprofit, raising money is essential for continued programming. Participant fees cover about 40 percent of costs with tax-deductible donations covering the rest. Currently, Tarbuton operates in part through a three-year matching grant from The Leichtag Foundation and is actively seeking financial support from local donors as they reach the end of that grant.

“I’m grateful to partner organizations and some dedicated participants and staff who understand why it’s so important to continue these programs and instill a passion for Israel in our next generation.

“Recently,” she continues, “a donor of ours pointed out that the work we do is privileged. We live in a time where we are lucky to have the State of Israel. When she was born, they did not. We have the privilege to share Modern Israel with our youth in a culturally rich, proud, emotional way that builds a thirst, a passion and support for our amazing Israel.  We are lucky to be able to do this work and we never take it for granted.”

If ever we needed to bridge divergent Jewish communities and let the world at large know the importance of Israel, it’s now. And Tarbuton is offering an innovative and fun way to do it. For more information on upcoming Israeli cultural programs in San Diego, visit

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