The Jerusalem Post; Metro Magazine Cover Story, by Benji Rosen, December 13, 2013 (full article)
The New Tel Aviv Zionists
The Am Yisrael Foundation is reinventing Olim engagement in the White City with the New Halutzim
Seven years ago when Jay Shultz made aliya, he was looking for intellectual stimulation in Tel Aviv, the city he chose to be his home. The story is well-known to most people who have attended a Tel Aviv International Salon event, the nonprofit and grassroots organization that connects young, English-speaking professionals with prominent leaders and decision makers in a forum of conversation and debate. What started as humble beginnings, a few of Shultz’s friends in a living room, has exploded into several different organizations – ranging from philanthropy to education, culture and religion – and a contact list of over 30,000 people.
Humble beginnings and big dreams – sounds like the history of a familiar little country. “What can be more amazing for a young Jew than to be somewhere relevant, where your actions have meaning? With a little bit of energy and creativity, you can make massive changes,” the 37-year-old New Jersey native tells Metro. “We encourage old-school Zionism, which means you come to Israel to give – not to take. You come to Israel to roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and build.”
Beginning in fall 2013, all of the organizations that work with TLV Internationals have joined under the banner of the umbrella foundation, Am Yisrael. Among them are White City Shabbat, which organizes monthly Shabbat meals that usually draws close to 200 attendees with another 100 waitlisted, the Tel Aviv International Salon, bringing prominent leaders and decision makers to speak to young professionals and the Tel Aviv Arts Council, which organizes activities around the arts. There is also ProjecT.A., which seeks to encourage civil engagement among the English speaking community and the Adopt-A-Safta program, which pairs olim and young Israelis with Holocaust Survivors.
Shultz explains that he eventually combined all of these projects into a foundation to amplify their impact. A foundation facilitates fundraising and attracts contributors; more backing allows for increased “bandwidth,” or the size of his operation. Shultz can now employ a staff of hundreds or even thousands.
He compares how much he can now accomplish by working in an actual workplace, rather than at home; or to sending out administrative emails as opposed to each organization’s director assuming all the tasks themselves. Shultz indicates that adjustments like these to the infrastructure of each of his organizations will open up new opportunities for olim in Tel Aviv.
“I have eight [organizations] actively functioning now. I have 18 on the back burner that I haven’t been able to get to because I haven’t yet had the bandwidth,” Shultz says. His future plans include increasing job opportunities in Israel for olim by importing mass-scale businesses from the US in the NGO sector. Aside from this remodeling, the undertaking Shultz started continues to support a community of olim and Israelis, particularly in Tel Aviv, working to empower them to be Jewish leaders. In doing so, the foundation aspires to bolster these young professionals’ holistic Jewish selves – to benefit not only Tel Aviv, but the rest of Israel.
Each of these organizations functioned without any funding prior to the foundation’s creation. To attend a Salon event or a White City Shabbat, for example, participants pay a minimal fee, usually NIS 20 to NIS 100. Because Shultz proclaims himself a “struggling philanthropist,” having created these organizations without any monetary support, he says he just relied on creativity and “oomph,” disregarding procedure. Normally, a foundation creates a nonprofit that carries out its goodwill aims, Shultz says, frankly adding that his unconventional approach is better. It relies on effort, not money.
With events that are almost always sold out, he can afford this kind of certainty.
But Shultz admits he pours himself completely into these organizations. “I go to sleep thinking what can I do for the Jewish People,” he says. “I wake up thinking what can I do for the Jewish People,”
Shultz’s overexertion has paid dividends. Despite their lack of donors, Am Yisrael’s organizations are wildly popular. Over 5,000 participants have attended more than 150 Tel Aviv International Salons, and White City Shabbat has served more than 10,000 Shabbat dinners.
Another ingredient of these organizations’ success is their shared platform: to foster Jewish leadership in young olim and Israelis.
Take for example an event organized by the Tel Aviv International Salon that brought Israel advocate, celebrity attorney and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz to speak to 1000 young professionals and address their questions. The event took place during the Israel Business Conference at the David Intercontinental hotel in Tel Aviv, put on by leading business newspaper Globes. Dershowitz’s appearance was in coordination with StandWithUs, an Israel education nonprofit. The Salon’s stated objective for these events is to create opportunities for young professionals to learn and reflect on issues such as Israeli and global politics, economics, social media and culture.
Dershowitz, who reiterated his support for Israel, the peace process with the Palestinians and his wary optimism about the interim deal with Iran, concluded the forum with a declaration: That he is confident in Israel’s future, because the generation of engaged Tel Avivians he spoke to will be leading it.
Another of Am Yisrael’s nonprofits, ProjecT.A., centers on reminding olim they must be civic leaders. An example of a recent ProjecT.A. initiative is young Jews training to become volunteer policemen in Tel Aviv. Shultz says the drive behind ProjecT.A. is “really rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty in a positive sense, and building and contributing.”
Shultz, who commonly makes talmudic references, sometimes includes historical allusions in the mix. Taking into account the 50th anniversary of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, Shultz quotes the adage, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The philosophy behind ProjecT.A., Shultz asserts, contributes to a “vibrant democracy,” especially in Tel Aviv.
A flagship organization of Am Yisrael, White City Shabbat, began as a way to provide collective Shabbat meals, but the religious and cultural diversity of participants offers a different dynamic in defining Jewish identities. White City Shabbat co-director Deborah Danan, who runs the organization with Eytan White, recalls that at its launch, she realized it was “about connecting people. The point was to have all stripes, all colors, all Jews – religious, not religious, French, Italian.
“We all really had, literally, the United Nations in one room,” she jokes.
From this experience, Danan says she became more aware of the role White City Shabbat can play. “Shabbat is a cornerstone of the Jewish faith. If we’re able to give it the proper significance, bring people together in a room and are able to give each one of those a voice, then I think we’ve done what we set out to do.”
Very often, she says, religious and secular participants learn from each other at these dinners. Secular participants end up learning a lot more about their Jewish heritage, and religious participants learn a lot more about open-mindedness. And out of all this, a community forms with members who have a stronger, more holistic Jewish identity.
“Jewish identity is about how to make it a better environment,” Danan says. “I think that that’s what we’ve been showing we can do in Tel Aviv: Being able to make every Jew a part of the conversation that has been happening for thousands of years.”
Shultz, however, realized that if he could strongly affect Tel Aviv without the support of a foundation, he could accomplish even more with the umbrella of Am Yisrael. To elaborate, he points to his Adopt-ASafta organization, pairing olim with Holocaust Survivors. Statistics released in April of this year by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel said there were 197,000 Holocaust survivors alive, and half of those cannot afford their monthly expenses, many complain of loneliness and some 37 die every day.
The objective of this initiative is to assist its two populations in overcoming loneliness and isolation. The participating olim, many of whom lack family of their own in Israel, get a surrogate grandparent. The Holocaust survivors receive warmth and connection. With financial backing, Shultz emphatically indicates, Adopt-A-Safta can include 1,000 Holocaust survivors.
Finally, his professed ultimate goal is to bring as many young Jews to Israel as possible.
“I believe ultimately we bring another million Western young Jews here tomorrow, and every problem we have in Israel gets a whole lot better,” he says. He asserts that Herzl and Jabotinsky were right, in that they all had pieces of the truth.
“The Pew study [of American Jewry] shows what doesn’t work. What’s happening is Israel shows what does work. For all its problems, it’s only getting better. For all of its problems, what’s not making it get better is that you are not here to fix it.
“There are 13 million problems in Israel. Every Jew is needed.”