Adam Milstein’s Formula for Success

May 6, 2020
As the Israeli-American Council’s Adam Milstein steps down as chairman, he reflects on its accomplishments

What does a grassroots movement comprised of thousands of energetic Israeli-Americans and Jewish-Americans look like? A group of multi-generational, bipartisan individuals who differ on much but agree on one singular mission: advocating for Israel and the future of the Jewish people.

Some 4,500 of them attended the Israeli-American Council (IAC) National Summit last December. While that’s an impressive figure, it actually represents just a small cross-section of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli-Americans and American Jews who participate in the IAC’s programming on an annual basis.
But that successful gathering – which included a keynote address from US President Donald Trump – now seems a scene from a different era. Sadly, the COVID-19 outbreak forced us into isolation and completely transformed the way we live.
IAC, though, has rolled with the punches. Using a start-up like mentality, the organization learned to quickly adapt its operations to provide live virtual learning experiences to engage with its audience from coast-to-coast.
The burgeoning nonprofit describes itself as the fastest-growing Jewish organization in the world, attributing that momentum to its ability to understand what makes both Israelis and Americans tick.
Below is an excerpt from The Jerusalem Report’s wide-ranging conversation with outgoing Chairman Adam Milstein where he reflected on the organization’s meteoric growth and where the IAC goes from here.
As the fastest growing Jewish organization in the US, how do you explain the IAC’s formula for success?
The IAC began when a few well-connected businesspeople of Israeli descent asked ourselves how could it be that there are 250,000 Israelis in Los Angeles, but very few of them are actively involved in supporting Israel. As a result, our group decided to launch an LA-based organization to address this very issue. Organizations usually have lofty ideas spearheaded by volunteers who don’t know how to execute their plan. But we did. We were both business people and philanthropists who had a vision and were well connected to the community at large. We decided to apply a start-up mentality to everything we did – this was our formula for success.
Today, the IAC has been able to reach, engage, and mobilize a community of Americans of Israeli descent – which traditional Jewish institutions could not access for decades.
We were successful because we provided Israelis living in America with a tangible identity, a feeling of family, community, and pride, a sense of purpose and a reason to be active.
What were the stumbling blocks along the way?
We transformed into a national organization in 2012 when we finally understood that we want to be defined as Americans of Israeli descent rather than  Israeli expats. Our kids are fully assimilated, and we are fully integrated into American life. The second we say we are Israeli, it hurts our identity as Americans and impacts how we interact with both Israelis and Americans. Americans would ask why we didn’t want to call ourselves Americans and Israelis would criticize us for being “yordim.”  It was simply counter-productive. So, we decided to call ourselves Israeli-Americans and it was a game-changer for us. Suddenly, people opened their eyes to who we are – in both America and Israel. We were suddenly a strategic asset to everyone.
How did you come to this realization?
It came from understanding how personal experience can shape your perspective. As a Jew involved in philanthropy post-9/11, I began working with several national pro-Israel organizations. Even then, I saw it bothered people when I was a part of an American organization but called myself Israeli. Even politicians had a problem with it, because if they associated with someone presenting himself as a foreign national, it was like they were receiving “foreign” money.
Between the coronavirus, the US-Israel relationship and the upcoming US elections, it seems as if there are many forces trying to tear our people apart – why do you think IAC can be an effective conduit to bring people together in these difficult times?
The US feels paralyzed at the moment. As a result, the IAC moved its activities to a digital platform faster than any other Jewish organization. IAC at Home has put everything online. Eventually, we will go back to face-to-face interaction, but now we must advance our mission in the digital space.
What IAC programs helped inspire Israelis and Jewish Americans to be involved?
IAC Eitanim is a great example of a program that sparks engagement. It provides 1,200 middle and high school students in the US with robust mentorship that teaches them entrepreneurial skills while demonstrating the importance of tapping into their Jewish heritage by connecting to Israel. Meanwhile, the IAC Mishelanu program gives first- and second-generation Israel-Americans enrolled in American colleges a platform to express their Israeliness. Israelis in America needed a vehicle to be active in Jewish life, and the traditional methods available often don’t speak to them, whether that is joining a congregation, or paying steep membership fees to become active in a pro-Israel organization. At IAC, our activities are free, we just ask for them to be engaged and involved.
What are the biggest challenges facing American Jewry today? How does IAC plan to do its part to combat those obstacles?
Radical movements are driving an alarming rise in antisemitism in America and around the world. We can’t afford to look the other way. We have to fight this evil head on, with pride and courage.
Our ability to combat antisemitism stems from the strength and accomplishments of the State of Israel. Supporting and endorsing Israel without any preconditions provides us with a boost necessary to combat our detractors. I think that the IAC and the Israeli-American community are capable of being proactive in leading this fight.
The fear in conservative-leaning circles is that Democrats are becoming increasingly hostile toward Israel. What is your take on this issue?
Antisemitism is an American problem, it’s a serious threat to American values. I am very concerned about certain figures on the radical left, including in Congress, who demonize Israel and, in some cases, spread overtly antisemitic ideas and stereotypes. We should have zero tolerance for this and need to call out these individuals for the bigots and antisemites that they are. That said, I have many friends on the Democratic side of the aisle – including Members of Congress – who are passionately pro-Israel and understand the importance of maintaining a strong and bipartisan US-Israel alliance. We have to do all that we can to maintain support for Israel in both parties.
What advice would you give your successor, Naty Saidoff?
The IAC’s success has been driven by the personal and philanthropic involvement of its lay leaders leading by example, understanding and leveraging the unique innovative impulse and value add of the Israeli-American community, whether that’s our unequivocal love and deep understanding of Israel, chutzpah, or our ability to think outside the box.
Naty is a unique visionary leader, who understands the big picture, and knows how to create synergy and force multiplication within our movement and with the Jewish American community. As a visionary and dedicated leader, Naty will continue dreaming big dreams, and the IAC will continue on its remarkable path of success and growth.