The Jewish Agency's Partnership 2000 program has discovered the potential of the environment to unite people and is eager to exploit it. The program pairs communities all over the world with communities in Israel to collaborate on projects. About 500 communities worldwide pair up with 45 counterpart communities here, according to strategy director Uri Bar-Ner. Partnership 2000 will hold its third international conference on Wednesday - its first in Israel. The event was scheduled to coincide with other major conferences which draw Diaspora Jews such as the UJC's General Assembly and Lions of Judah, Bar-Ner said. Over 200 people have signed up, he added. The day-long conference will focus on the hot topics for Partnership 2000, Raya Strauss Ben-Dror, the program's chair, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. For Strauss Ben-Dror, Partnership 2000 has been an eye-opening experience. "I didn't know what it was four or five years ago. I did someone a favor and hosted a delegation. I didn't have any idea, like most secular people in Israel, how Judaism works abroad. When we go abroad, we don't connect to Jewish reality. "I realized that they needed lay leaders like me. A world was revealed before me. My heart was opened. It's about the connection to our brothers in the Diaspora. It's a connection between people. [Through them] we understand what it means to be a minority, what it means to be part of a community - Israelis appreciate it," she said. Partnership 2000 was established in 1994. Since then, it has helped foster personal connections between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. The partnerships have reinvented the paradigm between Israel and the Diaspora, she said, because they are partnerships - not just donors and recipients. There will be six workshops at the conference which focus on the most pressing issues, she said. The first is based on the Israel 15 concept being promulgated by the Reut Institute. Its focus will be how to get Israel into the top 15 countries in the world in terms of standard of living. Israel currently ranks 37th. The other workshops will focus on subjects like reaching out to the religiously unaffiliated, how to use the Internet effectively, how to brand Israel and environmental joint projects. Nahariya activist Orit Reich was asked to put together a workshop focusing on her hometown in light of the perceived growing interest amongst Israelis in environmental issues. "The idea is to instill a Jewish ecological agenda in the partnerships. Today, it's a very hot topic. The combination of Diaspora Jewry and Israel could lead to some sort of statement about the earth itself," she told the Post. Reich recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Environmental Protection Ministry for her fight against asbestos in the Galilee. "We will focus on global warming, Israel's specific issues, local citizen's stories, how local communities deal with environmental issues and finally some sort of decision about the future - how we follow all of this up," she said. The growing possibility of widespread environmental collaborations has intrigued the heads of the program. "How can the partnerships help? The partnerships have budgets. We can do education, clean beaches campaigns and raise awareness. By 2009-10 we hope to have programs in all the partnerships," Bar-Ner said. Some have already gotten the ball rolling. Miriam Haran is head of the first environment committee set up under a partnership program. The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership set up the committee at the beginning of the year and it has already yielded impressive results, she said. Each side has set up a committee comprised of government representatives, NGO representatives, academics and others. Haran is also the head of the Environmental Studies Program at the Kiryat Ono Academic College. A delegation led by Los Angeles's mayor came to Israel to discuss knowledge and technology sharing. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a sisterhood between the Yarkon Stream and the Los Angeles River, said Haran, a former director-general of the Environmental Protection Ministry. "They were very interested in water. Eighty percent of LA's water comes from Northern California and elsewhere, which brings with it problems such as quality and infrastructure," Haran said. The idea is to trade expertise not just on clean technology but also on infrastructure building, financing and many other aspects of environmental planning, according to Haran. She will discuss many of the Partnership's efforts during the workshop on Wednesday as well as issue a call for all partnerships to establish environmental connection projects. Environmental issues are also a good way to bring in the younger generation, Haran said. We have representatives of the students on our committee and the LA committee has members of the younger generation in it too. The younger generation isn't connected to the same issues the older generation is, she added, but they are interested in the environment. While the LA-TA partnership has created the first exclusively environmental framework in the program, there have been other, more local environmental projects. In recent years, Nitzana has transformed itself into an ecological educational community, local resident David Palmach said. They are partnered with Denver, Colorado, and through the Partnership's monetary contributions have built up their educational projects. "We wanted to address the challenges of the next millennium, such as the environment. Nitzana is an educational community. 15,000 youth come from all over the country for seminars on all sorts of topics, including the environment. Six years ago, we said, since we are a dead end [deep in the Negev], let's do something singular. So we got to solar energy," he explained. "For instance, our swimming pool is heated year-round by solar panels, and I use solar panels to power my house. We wanted to show real life examples to the youth of alternative energy," Palmach said. Nitzana has also created an outdoor Solar Park of international standards. The park exhibits various aspects of solar energy and its applications. For Palmach, the environment is where Jews should be the "light unto the nations." "We took a backwater community and turned it into a genuine teaching community. We hope the children who are 16 and 17 now will become the future's engineers, generals, whatever and turn green into a must. "If we want to be a light unto the nations, we must use the environmental issue. We have Jews all over the place who should contribute to helping the world," he opined. In the case of Nitzana, Palmach believes, Israelis have a lot to teach their counterparts about ecology. "We are ahead of them [North American Jewry] in this area, though they are ahead of us in many other areas," he said. Denver has been specifically interested in desalination and other water technology, he said, to combat their water deficit.