Navigating philanthropy: An insider’s perspective

Starting a blog on the Times of Israel has been on my radar since becoming the Program Director at the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation, where I oversee our organization’s work to strengthen the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Every day, I encounter so much in the world of pro-Israel advocacy — and I often find myself thinking that other activists, donors, and organizations may find the lessons I have learned along the way to be useful. By sharing my experiences with the Milstein Foundation and the nonprofit organizations which we support, I hope to inspire and aid others looking to get involved in our work.

Who am I?

I studied law and economics at Tel Aviv University. As a 3rd year law student I co-founded and managed a nonprofit called Clean Air (“Avir Naki”), aimed at banning smoking from public spaces in Israel (today, no one remembers that, in 2008, people were smoking in the Ramat Aviv mall!) Working with so many dedicated individuals towards a common goal whet my appetite for this kind of work, so I then joined the boards of two other non-profits and while working as a tax attorney at Ernst & Young. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an MBA at UCLA Anderson School of Business (’14), and as a student I got involved with a number of LA-based nonprofits in the Jewish community before getting  elected President of the UCLA Jewish Business Club. I’ve been working with the Milstein Family Foundation since July 2014.

So what have advice do I have for nonprofits?

This is not a comprehensive list, and in many ways, it is a reflection of the Milstein Family Foundation’s approach to philanthropy in the niche world of pro-Israel philanthropy world. Still, this is my ‘wish-list’: the things I wish every grant applicant I spoke with knew. For their sake.

  1. Philanthropy isn’t so different from startup investing. To attract investors, startups need much more than just a good idea — they need to demonstrate a clear track record of success, and nonprofit organizations are no different. If you are serious about raising seed money, the best strategy is to start small, record how your approach works qualitatively and quantitatively, and then expand gradually.
  2. We invest in people. Startups and nonprofits are similar in that when you raise money, you don’t just sell your ideas, you sell yourself. The Milstein Foundation donates to a variety of organizations, but they all have one thing in common: they are driven by smart, hard-working people. You may be a nonprofit organization, but you must do your best to make prospective donors feel like investors: show them that they are not giving money away, but laying the foundations for future growth.
  3. Philanthropists can give more than just money: many want to stay involved to augment their donation’s impact. This is a lesson I have learned directly from the Milsteins, who talk about “active philanthropy” all the time. As you try to raise funds, understand that most philanthropists willing to donate major sums are not interested in throwing you some money and then walking away forever. You need to keep your donors feeling positive and involved.
  4. Find the synergies. At the Milstein Family Foundation, we are always looking for synergies between our different projects; when one of them needs support, the first thing we do is comb our network of organizations to see if we can find them some help. This is why it’s always a good idea to research your prospective donors. If your work ties into other projects that they fund, you can demonstrate that your organization can enhance their other initiatives, giving them more — as odd as it sounds for a nonprofit — ‘bang for their buck’.
  5. Private companies attract investors by standing apart from the competition; nonprofits attract donations through collaboration. A little competition can be great because it will pressure your organization to innovate and think outside the box. However, as a rule of thumb, nonprofits work best when they collaborate. Donors don’t want to give money to two or three organizations all doing the exact same thing. Rather than fearing the competition, non-profits should always be looking to build bridges in way that increases their impact. Working together with other organizations will allow you to network with like-minded individuals and lend you some credibility, which can be especially important when you are just starting out. At the Milstein Family Foundation, it’s very rare for us to meet a new organization without also making a few introductions.
  6. Show, don’t tell. A basic rule in economics is that people respond to incentives. It’s true in business, it’s true in relationships, and it’s just as true in the nonprofit sector. When you pitch your ideas to donors, don’t explain why they should invest in your idea, tell them why they have.  Give them a powerful incentive by showing them the tangible consequences of funding (or not funding) your work. If your nonprofit works with animals, bring some puppies to your sales pitch. If you’re designing a clean water project, pour your would-be donors a glass of disgusting, dirty water to show them just how high the stakes really are. Chances are your potential funders encounter new nonprofits all the time — if you want to hear back from them, you need to make a splash.

Final Thoughts

In my next blog post, I plan on writing about some of the projects that the Milstein Family Foundation supports.

The non-profit world is full of exciting opportunities to contribute to the causes you care most about. Have questions? Feel free to reach out to email me at [email protected].


You can learn more about the philanthropic work of Adam Milstein and the Milstein Family Foundation by visiting us at milsteinff.org.  


Reaching the tipping point for campus anti-Semitism

​​A wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping across American universities. During the 2014-2015 school year, resolutions calling for a boycott of the Jewish state were passed by 15 student governments — and considered by more than 15 others.


  • At UCLA, the student government passed a boycott resolution against Israel by a wide margin – and a Jewish student was almost prevented from joining the same government’s Judicial Board following accusations that her Jewish identity gave her dual loyalties.

  • At Stanford, a young Jewish woman running for the Student Senate was subjected to a barrage of hostility due to her open support for Israel.

  • AEPI – America’s largest Jewish fraternity — has seen its members attacked, and dozens of frat houses vandalized with hate speech and swastikas from the Deep South to the Pacific Coast.

These incidents are becoming increasingly common — a wave that has been aptly called a “tsunami” by many. In recent months, the situation has continued to get worse.

Increasingly, it has become politically correct to slander Israel and defame the student organizations working to defend her. At the University of Illinois, Professor Steven Salaita was fired for his penchant for anti-Semitic rants on Twitter, yet he received thunderous applause and a standing ovation a few months later from a group of professional scholars at a Middle East Studies conference in Washington DC as he blamed wealthy Zionists for his termination.

Many in America and Europe think that these hate groups are simply opposed to Israeli control in the land acquired from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. They conceal their true beliefs in a cloak of social justice by claiming to oppose Israel’s policies rather than Jews themselves. This allows them to build alliances with feminist, LGBT, minority and other student groups who don’t know any better.

The reality is that these hate groups don’t recognize the right of Israel to exist within any borders.

And the façade of the human rights activist quickly falls away when it’s clear that they are solely concerned with singling out the Middle East’s only democracy for criticism, while turning a blind eye to the horrific atrocities and human rights abuses throughout the region. They recycle the same lies that anti-Semites long used to demonize the Jewish people to now demonize the Jewish state, harassing and targeting Jewish students who dare to speak out on behalf of the State of Israel.

This movement is driven by a strange marriage of radical Islamists and radical leftists. It has been consistently linked to the Palestinian Authority leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood, and, in many cases,directly to Hamas – an internationally recognized terrorist organization. The tactics that this Movement uses against Israel today will be used against America tomorrow. Hatem Bazian – the founder of the Students for Justice in Palestine and one of the founders of this Movement – publicly called for an Intifada inside of the United Statesagainst the American government.

American Jewry has a historic responsibility to fight the anti-Semites and hate groups on our campuses. This month, I was honored to help organize a summit in Las Vegas to bring together more than 50 organizations in the battle against these campus hate groups.

We’ve formed a task force aptly named the “Campus Maccabees” — led by philanthropists Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban, and me — which will organize a nationwide movement to fight anti-Semitism and the hate groups that attack Israel. We will defend Jewish students and the Jewish state on American universities and beyond.

We believe that this new task force will be a game changer in this fight, coordinating the work of the very best pro-Israel organizations in unprecedented ways. We will move the battle against Israel’s enemies from defense to offense, from passive to proactive. We will reveal the baseline anti-Semitism of this Movement, expose its desire to eradicate the State of Israel, and give our students the tools to defeat it.

As part of this campaign, we must tap into a unique strategic asset that has not yet been fully leveraged: the Israeli-American community.

For too long, most Israelis living in America have remained separate from the traditional Jewish community – and disengaged from Israel advocacy efforts. Eight years ago I joined with several other Israeli-American leaders to found the Israeli-American Council (IAC) to change this reality. As the IAC has grown dramatically in recent years, we’ve seen firsthand how Israeli-Americans can level the playing field in our fight against anti-Semites on campuses.

Israeli-Americans are knowledgeable and passionate about this subject. And they can speak from personal experience – it’s much easier to explain Israel’s security challenges when your aunt lives in Sderot and your cousin serves in the IDF. Israeli-Americans – instilled with characteristic Israeli boldness – can form an army of students and professionals that are unafraid to stand up and speak out against the lies about the Jewish state spread by the anti-Semites.

We’ve reached a critical tipping point. The time has come for the pro-Israel community to fight fire with fire, to shift from the defensive to the offensive. With strength, determination and unity, we must show the anti-Semites taking over America’s universities that tsunamis can travel in more than one direction.

Adam Milstein is an Israeli-American philanthropist, activist, and real estate entrepreneur. To learn more about Adam’s work in pro-Israel advocacy, visit the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation.


Pew and the Jews, Part 2: experts say leveraging poll data trumps numbers

Posted on June 21, 2015  and filed under Features, Jewish Life, U.S..

Click photo to download. Caption: The Jewish Community Festival in Bellevue, Wash., in August 2007. At left is the booth of the Secular Jewish Circle of Puget Sound, which brings people together "to celebrate Jewish culture and heritage in a non-religious setting." Surveys on American Judaism by institutes such as the Pew Research Center often ignite debates on religious vs. secular Jewish observance and identification. Credit: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

Since the Pew Research Center released its U.S. Religious Landscape Study in May, most discussion of its findings has been quickly drowned out by other news. This is in stark contrast to the much-debated Pew survey on American Jewry that was released in October 2013.

Why the discrepancy? It’s likely because little new was discovered in the latest poll. According to the study, 25 percent of individuals raised as Jews no longer consider themselves Jewish, 35 percent of Jews who are married or living with a partner are with a non-Jew, and 39 percent of U.S. adults across religions are intermarried. The findings show that the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, that the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has jumped more than six percentage points (from 16.1 to 22.8), and that the majority of unaffiliated individuals are relatively young and getting younger.

The newest Pew study is just one of dozens of similar surveys published in the last decade—each with a slightly different angle, but ultimately revealing the same aforementioned trends. All the reports beg the question: Are such studies having a practical impact on the programming and services that the Jewish community is funding and delivering?

“These reports are very important,” says Israeli-born real estate investor and philanthropist Adam Milstein, head of the Los Angeles-based Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation. “These studies continue to highlight the fact that the American public is becoming less and less religious and that so many young Jews do not feel connected to their Jewish faith or the State of Israel. This is very concerning, and we cannot afford to ignore these facts.”

Click photo to download. Caption: U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ, pictured at left) with Jewish philanthropist Adam Milstein (at right) during the Israeli-American Council national conference in Washington, DC, in November 2014. Milstein says he is “constantly changing” his philanthropy “based on the facts on the ground.” Credit: Shahar Azran.

Milstein has used Jewish demographic studies to support grant-making decisions for the dozens of Jewish and Israel-related organizations that are funded by his foundation.

“I am constantly changing what I do based on the facts on the ground. Philanthropists should adjust to what is happening every year—every day,” Milstein tells JNS.org.

Shana Penn, executive director of northern California-based Taube Philanthropies, feels similarly. She tells JNS.org that the Taube foundation has “always been focused on finding unique and innovative ways to welcome the previously unengaged to Jewish life.” Studies such as the recent Pew report help Taube to ensure it is “strategic in our grant-making.”

Leading Jewish demographer Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, says that a quality study has the ability to help bring about change. Saxe’s center has carried out a number of surveys over the years, mostly focused on how changing conditions affect short-term and long-term behaviors.

“I look at the relationships between how a person thinks about something and then connect that to behaviors,” Saxe tells JNS.org.

There are three types of surveys or studies, Saxe says: population (as it sounds), evaluation (measuring outcomes), and opinion (attitudes). He explains that each has a different value, noting that surveys in general are less about the numbers and more about the dialogue that ensues from seeing those numbers.

When Baltimore’s Associated Jewish Community Federation carried out its 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, “there was nothing surprising” in the findings, says Michael Hoffman, ‎the federation’s outgoing chief development officer. 

“The data gave us proof to anecdotal evidence,” he tells JNS.org.

But that proof helped Hoffman, then as the federation’s chief planning and strategy officer, to harness a cadre of lay and professional leaders to address community trends.

“The objective is to collect the data because you plan to use it to inform community change,” Hoffman says.

For example, Baltimore Jewish communal leaders knew that the local population was getting older. But the community study found a much larger and increasing population of Jewish seniors over the age of 85 than expected. There were an estimated 3,900 seniors over 85 in 2010, compared with 1,500 in 1999, a 166-percent increase. More than one-third of this cohort was living in poor health and under poor economic conditions. 

“We used this as an important tool to create a spark among a collective and diverse group of lay and professional leadership inside and outside the Jewish community, to get them to become aspirational on what to do to address the growing needs of seniors in our community,” Hoffman says.

Pulling together with Jewish Community Services, the local Jewish Community Center, Comprehensive Housing and Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), and area synagogues, in addition to partnering with neighborhood associations, the Northwest Neighbors Connect was launched in Baltimore to keep seniors supported in their own homes.

“Once we coalesced on a problem statement, then we moved into strategy and tactics to address the problem statement. In 10 years, we think there will be a different data point,” says Hoffman.

Baltimore also found that just 14 percent of young adults under 35 were interested in Jewish community, but that 55 percent said being Jewish was important to them. Pairing that data with another statistic—that 46 percent of Baltimore Jews found the community’s organizations “remote and not relevant”—the Jewish federation led a team to reimagine young adult engagement programming. This gave birth to Moishe House, Charm City Tribe, and other now-significant community initiatives.

Cohen Center’s Saxe has spent the last 15 years studying the Taglit-Birthright Israel program to determine its impact on participants of the free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews ages 18-26. The best way to do this, the demographer says, “is to ask people.” Over time, Saxe has polled hundreds of thousands of people—Birthright participants and non-participants—to gauge opinions about Judaism, Israel, and intermarriage, among other relevant topics. Since the program already knows a lot about its constituents, Saxe is able to cross-tabulate information to determine if there is greater engagement when young adults participate in more than one Jewish program, such as a Jewish summer camp and Birthright.

Saxes says his work contributes to Birthright’s ability to secure major donations, as fundraisers can use the survey data to help validate the quality of the program. But he warns that observers should be wary of biased studies—those that don’t truly have a random sample size or don’t ask the right questions, and those that are reported out of context. 

For example, says Saxe, the J Street lobby recently published a poll claiming that American Jewish support for a nuclear agreement with Iran exceeds support for the deal among the general U.S. population, with 59 percent of Jewish respondents saying they would support a deal. Yet the poll results also showed that the most favorably viewed political figure among American Jews today is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than U.S. President Barack Obama.

“That [J Street] poll is being used to argue a particular political position. But if you look at the poll in full, there is contradictory evidence,” Saxes says, referencing the fact that J Street promoted the survey’s results on Iran, but not the results on Netanyahu.

Saxe adds, “The Jewish community is paying more attention to data. There are a number of [charitable] foundations that pay close attention to surveys. That’s good and we’re getting better.”


Moving and shaking: AFHU award dinner, TRZ Yom HaShoah event and fire safety at B’nai David-Judea

by Ryan Torok


From left: New Community Jewish High School Head of School Bruce Powell and the de Toledo family — Benjamin, Aaron, Alyce and Philip. Photo courtesy of New Community Jewish High School

New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) celebrated its upcoming name-change to de Toledo High School — which goes into effect July 1 — during the school’s annual gala at the Skirball Cultural Center on May 17.

The event honored members of the de Toledo family: Alyce and Philip de Toledo and the couple’s sons, Benjamin, who graduated from the school in 2014, and Aaron.

The family made a gift of an undisclosed amount last year to the school — the impetus for the school’s name change — that will fund an endowment to offset tuition costs, and which has supported renovations to the school in West Hills. NCJHS purchased its 100,000-square-foot campus, where nearly 400 students will be enrolled in the 2015-16 academic year, from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The school opened at the site in 2013.

Approximately 700 people turned out at the Skirball, including American Jewish University President Rabbi Robert Wexler, Skirball President Uri Herscher and NCJHS founding Head of School Bruce Powell. Musical theater/drama and dance students performed during the event.

Also honored during the evening was Linda Landau, who serves as vice president of community affairs on the school’s board. She received the Nita Hirsch Community Service Award.

Members of the pro-Israel community gathered at the home of Adam and Gila Milstein for a fundraising gala on May 14 in support of the Birthright Israel Foundation.

The event, co-sponsored by the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, featured remarks from radio host and Journal columnist Dennis Prager, and a keynote address from business magnate and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.

During his comments, Prager appealed for a need to bring youth back to the Jewish faith, and to give them the tools to combat leftism. “There’s an antidote,” he said. “One of those antidotes, the biggest one right now, is Birthright — sending Jewish kids to Israel.”

Adelson told the 240-person crowd about his upbringing, and how the seeds were planted that grew into his love for Israel: “My father is the main reason [my wife] Miriam and I got involved in Birthright. When Israel was born, he said, ‘One day I will go,’ but he never had any money. When we finally made some money and tried to send him, it was too late.”

Adelson pledged to match every dollar given to Birthright over the next three years, up to $50 million a year. “We want to go from 40,000 kids to 75,000 a year on Birthright. We won’t rest until that happens,” he said.

Miri Belsky, deputy CEO at the IAC, told the audience that Birthright made her abandon her medical aspirations for a career in Jewish leadership. Other speakers included the Milsteins; Richard Sandler, immediate past chair of Federation, and Steve Fishman, a member of the Los Angeles regional council of the Birthright Israel Foundation. Comedian Mark Schiff provided entertainment for the evening.

According to a press release, a portion of the $1.5 million raised at the event was specifically earmarked for the IAC’s new Shelanu program, which offers Birthright trips to Israeli-Americans.

— Aron Chilewich, Staff Writer

Carrie Glickstein recently recalled having her bat mitzvah at San Pedro’s Temple Beth El synagogue in 1965. After a bit of nostalgia, however, the 63-year-old’s thoughts moved forward in time during a May 31 groundbreaking ceremony for the Reform congregation that is undergoing major renovations and undertaking a $5 million capital campaign. (Nearly $4.5 million has been raised so far.)

“I love that the community is so vibrant and looking toward the future,” Glickstein said in an interview about Beth El, which was established in 1922 and is home to about 260 families.

Debi Rowe, the synagogue’s director of education and programs, told the Journal in a phone interview that the goal is “revitalizing the current campus.” Already covered in plastic sheeting and yellow caution tape in the lobby, the synagogue is renovating its entire lobby and social hall, reconfiguring one of its classrooms, and, if it raises enough money, turning its library into a hybrid beit midrash/library. It will add a handicapped-accessible ramp to its front entrance and emergency sprinklers to its sanctuary as well, according to Sandi Goldstein, who is serving as a consultant for the capital campaign.

Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin and Congress member Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) were among those who attended the groundbreaking ceremony, during which congregants wrote their names on pieces of lumber that will be used in the upcoming construction. Approximately 250 people attended the event, which raised $35,000, according to Goldstein.

Beth El clergy includes Cantor Ilan Davidson and Rabbi Charles Briskin, who told the Journal that the synagogue holds particular importance in San Pedro. Here people rely on the synagogue for “vibrant Jewish life,” Briskin said. George Mayer, chair of a 24-person committee that has been conducting the capital campaign, echoed the rabbi’s remarks.

Glickstein’s father, Seymour Waterman, 92, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy, donated more than $1 million to the campaign, according to Goldstein. Waterman said he joined the congregation when he was 6 or 7 years old and continues to be involved with it.

“I’m happy for the community, and I’m doing as much as I can,” he said at the recent ceremony.

Construction is slated to be completed in February. The synagogue will remain open during construction, although its religious school and High Holy Days services will be held offsite.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email [email protected].


Joining forces to fight the anti-Israel boycott

Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson convene Campus Maccabees Summit in Las Vegas, attended by 50 groups, to formulate strategy on how to defeat boycott campaign against Israel • Adelson: We must be united. Time has come to initiate and stop reacting.

Boaz Bismuth
Haim Saban, Sheldon Adelson and Dr. Miriam Adelson in Las Vegas this weekend 


 Photo credit: Boaz Bismuth


Major Gala Raises $1.5 million for Birthright Israel Foundation

Press Release – For Immediate Release                Media Contact

May 19, 2015                                                              Nathan Miller

                       310-571-8264 or [email protected]


Gila and Adam Milstein host sold-out event featuring Sheldon Adelson and Dennis Prager

(Los Angeles) – On May 14th, 240 leaders from the Los Angeles Pro-Israel Community gathered for a sold-out fundraising gala for Birthright Israel at the home of Gila and Adam Milstein, raising more $1.5 million to send young American Jews on fully subsidized trips to Israel. The event – co-sponsored by the Birthright Israel Foundation, the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles — featured a keynote speech from Sheldon Adelson – a renowned Jewish philanthropist and entrepreneur – and remarks from radio talk show host Dennis Prager. Other speakers included Richard Sandler of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation; Miri Belsky, a Birthright alumnus and the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the IAC; Steve Fishman, the Chairman of the Los Angeles Leadership Council; and Gila and Adam Milstein.

Gila Milstein recounted her participation on a Birthright donor trip to Israel last January. She said, “Sitting together at the Kotel, these young men and women told us how they had discovered a new piece of themselves. They fell in love with their homeland, their people, and their tradition. I got goosebumps as they told me that the trip had inspired them to have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. As a mother, as a Zionist, and a proud Jew, I was so powerfully moved.”

“I was incredibly proud that we were able to bring together the IAC, the Jewish Federation, and such a wide range group of Pro-Israel and Jewish leaders from across our community under one tent to support Birthright,” said Adam Milstein. “Despite heavy rain and a cliff-hanging Clippers playoff game, we doubled the attendance at this event compared to last year, raising critical funds to support a program that has proven uniquely effective in building Jewish identity in our next generation.”

He added, “Through the Milstein Family Foundation’s work on college campuses, I’ve seen firsthand that Birthright alumni are among our best Israel advocates. They are critical assets in our fight against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS).”

Sheldon Adelson – who has contributed more than $160 million to Birthright since 2007 – spoke about the roots of his commitment to the organization. He said, “I came from a very poor family. We were so poor we couldn’t even afford poverty. My father is the main reason Miriam and I got involved in Birthright. When Israel was born he said ‘one day I will go,’ but he never had any money. When we finally made some money and tried to send him, it was too late. In 2006 when Birthright was in trouble, I thought of my father. We didn’t want Jewish kids to grow too old or too sick to visit Israel.”

He added that the Chinese have a proverb: “There are three things you can’t take back — the spoken word, a spent hour and yesterday. I would like to add a fourth — the opportunity to save a life. Birthright saves lives, Jewish lives.”

At the end of his remarks, Adelson issued a challenge to the audience, saying, “My wife and I will match every dollar that you raise tonight up to $50 million. We want to go from 40,000 kids to 75,000 a year on Birthright. We won’t rest until that happens.”

A significant percentage of the funds raised at the event were from Israeli-American donors. Several donations were specifically earmarked for the IAC’s new Taglit Shelanu program, which will launch this summer, offering special Birthright trips tailored for Israeli-Americans. On these trips, programming will be conducted primarily in Hebrew and Israeli soldiers will be present during the full duration of the ten-day visit to Israel. Six busloads of young Israeli-Americans will participate in Taglit Shelanu this summer, with plans for four additional IAC Taglit Shelanu this winter and 12 trips during the summer of 2016.

The evening was filled with emotional testaments to Birthright’s power to change lives. Miri Belsky spoke about how her experience on Birthright inspired her to pursue a path to Jewish leadership, which included many years working at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the IAC.

About the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation: The Milstein Family Foundation works to safeguard and strengthen the Jewish People and the Jewish State by igniting Jewish pride in the next generation, providing pro-Israel Americans with knowledge and expertise to advocate for the State of Israel, and bolstering the critical U.S.- Israel Alliance. Learn more at: http://milsteinff.org/.


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The Israeli-Americans: Who they are, what they want, where they’re headed, why they matter

by Jared Sichel

A crowd of about 10,000 gathered in Rancho Park for the 2014 Celebrate Israel Festival. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal

Last November, a group of ambitious Israeli-Americans captured the inside-the-Beltway limelight for a weekend with a large, flashy conference at the Washington Hilton. Among the highlights were billionaire businessmen and political donors Sheldon Adelson, a Republican, and Haim Saban, a Democrat — who had an animated, moderated onstage discussion — as well as appearances by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The conference was staged by the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which formed eight years ago in its home city of Los Angeles and has an expanding nationwide presence. Its conference served, in part, to brand and highlight the existence in the United States of an Israeli-American community that has a unique character, unique needs and unique ties to Israel. The conference, which often felt more like a party, sent a message to its 800 guests, as well as to the scores of Jewish- and Israeli-Americans who heard about it: The IAC is a serious, driven and very, very well-funded force on the Jewish and pro-Israel stage in America.

And it’s growing at a startlingly rapid clip.

Israelis have been immigrating to the U.S. since shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, but for decades, even as tens of thousands of them have become financially successful businessmen, lawyers, professors, doctors and more — particularly in Los Angeles, New York and Miami — there remained a nagging sense of cultural discomfort: Can they call America home when many of them long for Israel? Can they call Israel home while living in the Diaspora?

“We don’t feel [100 percent] American,” Adam Milstein, managing partner of Hager Pacific Properties, said in an interview last month at his Encino office. “I think we’re also different than the Israelis living in Israel — they don’t see us as part of them.” He and his wife, Gila, moved to the U.S. in 1980 with their two daughters. Milstein is a real-estate entrepreneur who sits on a number of boards of Jewish and pro-Israel groups; he’s also one of the IAC’s seven co-founders, all of whom were business and community leaders in Los Angeles when they created the group in 2007.

For many reasons — one is the feeling of not being fully American — most Israelis traditionally have not been involved with mainstream Jewish communal organizations in the U.S., particularly the Jewish Federation, the embodiment of the organized, institutionalized American-Jewish community. So in 2007, this group of Israeli businessmen created their own community, growing it in just eight years from one office in the San Fernando Valley to a national organization headquartered in Los Angeles, with six regional offices in L.A., New York, Boston, Miami, New Jersey and Las Vegas, 70 employees and an $18 million budget this year. The IAC’s donors are as wealthy and ideologically diverse as Saban and Adelson (the latter has given well over $10 million), and the group said it reached some 150,000 people in 2014 (a number it touts on its website and supplemental materials). It also is exploring the possibility of opening offices in two more cities — Chicago and Philadelphia — and hopes to soon have influence on Capitol Hill and in multiple state capitals. It already has relationships with U.S. and Israeli government officials, among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top U.S. lawmakers.

With money, vision, programming and a young, motivated staff, the IAC is redefining for Israelis in America what it means to be an Israeli living in America. In just eight years, it has become the go-to umbrella community organization Israeli-Americans have lacked for 60 years — a group that wants to help Israeli-Americans feel at home while maintaining strong ties to the Jewish state. It also helps them to feel at peace with having left Israel — some Israeli and American Jews still see that as betraying the Zionist vision — by acting here as citizen “ambassadors” for Israel.

Among the IAC’s activities is providing Israeli-American children with Hebrew-language kids’ books; running Israeli cultural and Hebrew-language programs for teens, college students, young adults, parents and senior citizens; organizing annual large-scale Celebrate Israel festivals in all of its regional centers, such as the one taking place May 17 in Los Angeles’ Rancho Park; and funding dozens of Israeli culture and Hebrew-language programs across the country.

One of the major aims of all this money and programming is to help Israelis resist the pressures of assimilation not only on themselves, but also on their children and grandchildren. For example, the IAC’s outgoing CEO, Sagi Balasha, 42, who will soon return to Israel with his wife and two children, said that in the four years he and his family have lived here, his kids are already “totally Americanized.”

“If you come to my home you’ll see a typical Israeli-American home,” Balasha said, recalling a recent evening when his son, Shahaf, posed a simple question. “Abba, how many presidents did we have?”

“For a second,” Balasha said, “I was like, ‘How many presidents did wehave?’ He feels American. I would ask, ‘How many presidents didAmerica have?’ ”

The mission is to build a strong Israeli-American community, and strengthen the American-Jewish community and the State of Israel.

Of course, this mission faces challenges, as well as some internal quandaries. The group is Israeli, but it’s also American. It wants to re-create some of the best things about Israel here, but not so much so that Israeli immigrants who had planned to return decide they can actually stay Israeli in, say, Tarzana. The group wants to connect with and impact the American-Jewish community, although Israeli-Americans more often like to create their own institutions and avoid membership in ones the American-Jewish community has used for generations.

What drives the IAC?

Two distinct IAC offices occupy one floor of an office building in a cookie-cutter corporate office park in Woodland Hills, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, where the majority of L.A.’s Israeli-Americans reside. One office houses the organization’s L.A. regional staff, the other its national staff. Both spaces display Hebrew-language magazines and pamphlets on the counters, and pictures of different Israeli cities and of Israeli soldiers on the walls.

The ambience is Israeli-casual — people are dressed in jeans or Dockers and a few of the women wear skirts. Staffers generally speak among themselves in Hebrew, and there are the ever-present sounds of ringing phones and buzzing email alerts. Five of the IAC’s seven founders still serve on its 13-member board. Three are successful real-estate developers — Milstein, Shawn Evenhaim and Naty Saidoff; Danny Alpert owns a jewelry company called Oro Alexander; and Yossi Rabinovitz is the owner of JMR Electronics. As they tell it, in the summer of 2006, around the time of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, then-L.A. Consul General Ehud Danoch encouraged them to create an organization that could unite the large yet uncounted number of Israelis living in Los Angeles to help support Israel, particularly in times of war.

The guiding mission of what was first called the Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) — shortly thereafter becoming the Israeli Leadership Council — quickly expanded to creating a more formally cohesive Israeli-American community that could both nurture and perpetuate a sense of Israeli identity for Israelis and their offspring in America, as well as bridge the gap between Israeli-Americans and the institutions of the Jewish-American community. The reasons behind that gap stem from the days when yordim — those who “descend” as opposed to “ascending” in making aliyah — was still the default characterization for Israeli emigres. As a result, Michigan State University sociologist and Israeli Diaspora expert Steven Gold said, Israeli immigrants were seen as “marginal” to much of the Jewish-American community.

“They weren’t supposed to go abroad [from Israel], so they were kind of embarrassed,” Gold said. “Israel wasn’t supportive of them, and the American-Jewish community, which wanted to help Israel, didn’t reach out a lot.”

Israelis who have lived in the United States for decades remember well when, in a 1976 interview televised in Israel, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin derisively called Israelis who had left Israel “nefolet shel nemushot”— “fallen weaklings,” people not tough enough to make it in Israel.

Israeli and American-Jewish attitudes toward Israeli emigres changed in the 1990s, following the influx of more than 1 million Jewish immigrants into Israel from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, according to author Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. With these new citizens, the “old Israeli anxiety about demographics began to ease,” Halevi said. Israelis who left were suddenly somewhat tolerable to the Israeli psyche, and, over the years, they began to be viewed as potential assets to the Jewish state, as evidenced by Danoch’s request to Israeli expatriates in Los Angeles.

Since its founding, the IAC has had one big factor in its favor: wealthy backers, and lots of them. Its co-founders together are worth many millions of dollars. Saban (net worth $3.5 billion) was an early backer, along with Beny Alagem, the owner of the Beverly Hilton and the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills. Both gave $250,000 at the IAC’s first major fundraiser, in 2008. With the 2013 addition of Adelson (net worth $30 billion), the IAC’s pockets don’t seem to have a bottom.

At its seventh annual Los Angeles gala, which took place March 8 at the Beverly Hilton, the group announced it had raised $23.4 million, including $12 million from Adelson and $1.2 million from Saban. “Sheldon is 10 times richer than me,” Saban quipped to the crowded hall of 1,100 dinner guests, “I said to Sheldon, ‘Listen, whatever you give, I’ll give one-tenth.’ ” Less than one year earlier, in May 2014, Adelson and Saban together contributed $3.5 million of $6.5 million raised at a fundraiser at Milstein’s Encino home for the creation of a Birthright program specifically for Israeli-Americans.

At the March gala, the IAC also announced the purchase of a $10 million property in Winnetka, just east of its current San Fernando Valley offices, which it plans to use as a community center for the Israeli-American community and as the new headquarters of the IAC. The group may also offer office space for other Israeli organizations.

The vision for this community center, although not fully formed, sounds something like an Israeli-American version of a Jewish Federation combined with a traditional Jewish community center — a physical structure open to community professionals, families and individuals. It’s primed to be a major physical and figurative landmark for a community that notoriously “sits on its suitcases,” as Balasha put it.

“People come here with the intention to go back, and that creates a special psychology,” he said of Israeli immigrants. “You will not really try to be part of a Jewish community; you will not try too hard to integrate into American society; you will not spend your money on sending your kids to Jewish day schools, because you’ll just speak Hebrew at home.”

Instead of integrating into mainstream Jewish structures, Israelis in Los Angeles and around the country long have tended to create their own medley of after-school programs, nursery schools, social programs and lecture series, maintaining some mix of both Israeli and Jewish identity independent of traditional American Jewry.

“They were just individuals around this country, and there was nothing that united them — they were not part of any community,” Balasha said. “Until now.”

Preserving what many at the IAC call “Israeliness” is one-third of the IAC’s mission. For all ages, from young children to working professionals and seniors, the IAC runs and funds dozens of programs that are infused with Israeliness.

“To identify with Israel [in America] is a challenge, it’s a struggle, and you need to work a lot,” Balasha said. “You want to celebrate with your kids Halloween and Thanksgiving, but you want for them to feel that Pesach and Sukkot and Chanukah are as much theirs — and Yom HaAtzmaut, maybe more than any other holiday.”

For the IAC’s children’s programming, there’s Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which mails Hebrew children’s books and music to 15,000 Israeli-American homes in the U.S. once a month at no charge, according to the IAC’s chief programming officer, Shanee Feig. In June, the IAC will offer Machane Kachol Lavan, a Hebrew-language sleep-away camp in Running Springs, Calif., and Barryville, N.Y. It will mark the camp’s second year in California and its first on the East Coast.

College students have Mishelanu, which sponsors get-togethers and events on more than 30 campuses nationwide, said Nirit Hinkis, the program’s coordinator for the Southern California and Las Vegas regions. And the IAC’s Tzav 8 is a communication system with about 50,000 phone numbers and email addresses that the group uses to quickly organize rallies and demonstrations to support Israel during crises like the war with Hamas last summer. Balasha said the IAC has used this network four or five times to mobilize rallies, most recently in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Las Vegas.

There’s also the IAC’s largest and most expensive program, Celebrate Israel, which brings together tens of thousands of American and Israeli-American Jews to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. About 10,000 Jews (a number the group hopes to increase) have attended the Sunday event each year in Rancho Park, enjoying Israeli food, music, arts and culture on the heavily Jewish Westside of Los Angeles. The IAC’s operating cost for the Los Angeles festival is about $700,000 annually.

This year, Balasha said, a Celebrate Israel festival in Miami on May 3 drew about 9,000 people, and one in Las Vegas on May 10 drew 3,600. The IAC’s regional offices in New York and Boston plan to have simultaneous Celebrate Israel festivals on May 31. Balasha said the group expects its five festivals this year will collectively draw a total of about 50,000 people.

In addition, the IAC also awards grants to dozens of Jewish and Israel-focused organizations and programs, including the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema and the Phoenix Israel Center, as well as StandWithUs and Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Having their cake and eating it, too?

“There was one woman who told me, ‘The community is so amazing here that I feel less of a need to go visit Israel,’ ” Dikla Kadosh, regional director of the IAC’s office in Los Angeles, said. Kadosh said she thought at the time, “Oh my God, no, that’s not the intention. We don’t want to re-create Israel so much, so realistically, that people stop going to Israel.”

In Los Angeles, though, Israel doesn’t always feel so distant, particularly because of the climate, the Israeli-style restaurants and the concentration of Israelis in certain neighborhoods, and also because of what the IAC has built.

“Especially as our community strengthens here, there’s a lot less of that guilty feeling of, ‘What am I taking away from my children? What risk am I taking by being here? That my children will not be Jewish, that my children will not speak Hebrew, that my children will not have a connection to Israel,’ ” said Kadosh, who was born in Israel, moved here at 6, and has lived in L.A. for most of her life, with many trips back. She said she feels neither fully Israeli nor American, but comfortably identifies with the Israeli-American term the IAC has helped brand.

“I have been told by people who live in the Valley, in the center of all of this, that living here is like the best of Israel, because they can replicate the life that they had there in terms of easy access to the food and the culture and the people, within all the niceties of living a Southern California lifestyle,” said Miriam Alpern, who runs the IAC’s marketing and communications.

No one really knows how many Israeli immigrants and first- and second-generation Israeli-Americans live in the United States or in Los Angeles. The IAC says about 250,000 Israeli-Americans live in Los Angeles and between 500,000 and 800,000 in the United States. In an email to the Journal, the Israeli Consul General’s Office in Los Angeles wrote, “There isn’t an official number, but we estimate there are 250,000 Israelis living in L.A.”

Most demographers and sociologists who have studied Israeli immigration to the U.S. believe those numbers are far too high. Ira Sheskin, a geographer and demographer at the University of Miami, is director of the Jewish Demography Project, which released in 2010 what may be the most recent and reliable study on Israeli-Americans in the United States. Using data from the American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample — a sort of annual mini-census the U.S. Census Bureau conducts by contacting more than 3 million households — Sheskin estimated that in 2008 about 329,000 Israeli-Americans lived in the United States, 136,000 of whom were born in Israel.

Asked where some estimates of up to 800,000 Israeli-Americans in the United States and 250,000 in Los Angeles come from, Sheskin said, with a laugh, “Their tuchis.”

“It’s like if you ask an Orthodox Jew how many Orthodox Jews are there in the area — these are always going to be overestimates. Everybody does that. If you ask a Nicaraguan in Miami how many Nicaraguans are in Miami, you’re going to get a number that’s higher than in the U.S. Census,” Sheskin said.

At a certain point, though, the real number doesn’t matter; what matters is that Israeli-Americans comprise a significant percentage of Jews in the United States, and they’re trying to create an Israeli-American identity while working outside of traditional American-Jewish structures, while still infusing the American-Jewish community with some measure of “Israeliness,” as board member and co-founder Saidoff said.

Saidoff moved to California in the mid-1970s at 21. He said he felt like so many Israeli emigres when he left — that he had “turned my back” on Israel, even when he decided he wanted to live in the United States for good.

“I feel like I’m paying my dues the best way I can,” Saidoff said in a recent interview. “I think the best way to be a Zionist is to live in Israel, and since I don’t, the second-best way is to be an activist and donate money and do what I do now.”

Miri Shepher, another board member and president of Life Alert Emergency Response, said she still feels guilty 40 years after choosing to leave Israel. She was born in Tunisia but moved to Israel with her family when she was 2. She then came to America with her husband in 1975, intending to stay only a few years, but like so many Israelis, she eventually acknowledged that it wasn’t a one-way ticket.

 Forty years later, her guilt eased somewhat when Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told her at the IAC’s 2014 gala, “You guys can help more sitting here than making aliyah to Israel.”

“It was the first time somebody gave me that good feeling,” Shepher said. “Maybe he’s right.”

Preserving an ethnic cultural identity for future generations is a fundamental aim of many immigrant groups in the United States. To that end, organizations with some programs and resources similar to the IAC have popped up among Chinese, Italian, Korean and Mexican immigrants, to name just a few. But unique to the IAC, as Gold said, is the “explicitness and self-consciousness” with which the group promotes Israeli culture and the State of Israel.

For example, the group supports organizations such as Israel Scouts and lone soldier support programs, which celebrate and offer help to American Jews (many of them first- and second-generation Israeli-Americans) who serve in the Israel Defense Forces and often make aliyah.

“The goal is to have the Israeli-American second generation grow up here and have such a strong connection to Israel that they visit frequently, that they speak Hebrew like an Israeli,” said Kadosh, whose husband is Israeli and who said her 3-year-old son speaks Hebrew but barely any English. “Their identity is so strong that it doesn’t matter whether they ever lived [in Israel] — they still identify as Israeli-Americans.”

Israeli-Americans and American Jewry

Of the IAC’s three main missions, the one proving the most difficult to achieve, at least in Los Angeles, is its desire to strengthen connections to the American-Jewish community. In Boston, the IAC’s regional office seems to have a close working relationship with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), the name for that city’s Jewish Federation. But in Los Angeles, the relationship has been next to nonexistent since Israelis began moving here in large numbers in the 1970s.

“We have been courting the Israeli community in Los Angeles from the very beginning,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said. “It’s an important goal to engage a large and growing segment of the Jewish community that has not really engaged in the general Jewish community.”

“I think the best way to be a Zionist is to live in Israel, and since I don’t, the second-best way is to be an activist and donate money and do what I do now.” — Naty Saidoff, IAC co-founder and board member

Balasha and Kadosh, however, expressed disappointment at what they described as Federation’s failure to pursue a relationship with the IAC, particularly when it comes to the city’s annual Celebrate Israel Festival, which Federation doesn’t sponsor or promote.

“To us, it’s a big barrier to being partners. Getting the Federation to be a part of it is a stamp of approval,” Kadosh said. Becoming a partner in the festival, she believes, would send the message: “Israeli-Americans are a top priority in our community.”

“[It’s] an open sore for us and I think for our entire community,” Kadosh said.

Whether a relationship in Los Angeles between the IAC and Federation develops “all depends on the Federation,” Balasha said. “There are Federations, like in Boston, where we work so closely together.”

Sanderson, though, said, “To expect the Federation to work with them in the way they want, on the projects they want, on the time frames they want, is not realistic.”

He said Federation’s mode of operating, unlike the IAC’s with Celebrate Israel, is not to put “a lot of investment into one event,” but to work on long-term engagement strategies, as they have done with young Russian-American Jews in Los Angeles.

“We think the Celebrate Israel Festival is a great event, but it’s not as high a priority for us as it is for them,” Sanderson said. “I do not judge the IAC for their decision to prioritize this event, and I hope they will not judge us for our lack of prioritizing the event.”

Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s CJP, said he could not speak to the IAC’s relationship with the L.A. Federation, but did say that when the IAC first expanded to Boston last year, they asked for his help in reaching Israeli-Americans and Jewish-Americans in the area.

“No Federation has done great in involving Israelis in the work of the Federation, so I thought this would be a great way to make a bunch of new connections to the Israeli community,” said
Shrage, who was present at the opening of the IAC’s Boston office. “It would’ve been extraordinarily stupid for us to say no.”

Sanderson said that Federation wants to use what it has learned from its work with young Russian-American Jews in possible future engagements with young Israeli-Americans, and that his team has had discussions with the IAC to that effect. “We’ve had these recent conversations with the IAC about creating a similar model with young adults that we have with the Russian community,” Sanderson said. “[But] one of the big differences between the Russian-Jewish community and the Israeli-Jewish community is the Russian community doesn’t have an IAC — a well-funded organization with strong leadership.”

In Los Angeles, Israelis have their own community institutions, including, for example, the Mati Israeli Community Center, which was established in 2007 and provides Israeli cultural events and activities for people of all ages. For Hebrew school, there’s the AMI School. And as the Israeli-American version of America’s Boy Scouts, there’s the North American version of Israel’s Tzofim, which connects its membership of primarily second-generation Israeli-Americans with youth in Israel. Many Israelis are not accustomed to the structure of synagogue life in the United States — in part because Israel’s Conservative and Reform movements are tiny and largely unknown as compared to their counterparts in America. Balasha said most Israeli-Americans also don’t want to pay the required membership fees for synagogues here. And while many Orthodox synagogues in the U.S., as in Israel, are very loose with membership policies, a large number of Israelis here — many who tend secular — feel those congregations are “too Charedi.”

Separateness, though, according to the IAC’s and Federation’s statements, is not the goal. “If both parties are of good will and are not judging each other, we will find a way to make this work,” Sanderson said. “I’m hopeful — they need to be hopeful, too.”

‘The IAC will be involved in some lobbying’

At the IAC’s inaugural national conference in November 2014 and at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in March, the IAC displayed the relationships it has built with several prominent politicians, including Romney, Menendez, Graham and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who spoke at a private IAC event for pro-Israel college students at AIPAC’s conference.

The IAC is currently searching for a director for its recently formed Washington, D.C., council, which Balasha said will be just like any of its other regional operations in providing services for Israeli-Americans. But he said the group also hopes to have a clear picture by October of how it might want to influence policymakers on Capitol Hill and in state capitals.

“The IAC will be involved in some lobbying, like any other big organization,” Balasha said. “But it’s not going to be our focal point. We may have one representative that’s working to represent the Israeli-American community on the Hill.”

What Israelis (who know about the IAC) think

Aya Achimeir, CEO of Debby Communications Group in Tel Aviv, has the IAC as a client, and her job is to get Israeli media outlets to cover the group’s activity in the United States.

She contrasted Israeli-Americans, who she said “never call on people to leave Israel,” with Israelis in Berlin in 2014 who fueled the “Milky” protest, which was sparked by Naor Narkis, an Israeli who lived for a time in Berlin and who encouraged Israelis to move to Germany as a gripe against the high cost of living in Israel. In October 2014, he posted on Facebook the German equivalent of Milky, a popular Israeli chocolate pudding, and said it cost the equivalent of only one shekel in Germany — one-fourth its cost in Israel. Narkis reportedly returned to Israel late last year.

Unlike Rabin’s view in the 1970s, Achimeir said Israel now sees Israelis in the United States as “ambassadors” and “advocates.” Evidence of this is Netanyahu’s meeting with the IAC’s leadership and board when he visited Los Angeles in March 2014.

“His main message to the IAC was, ‘You’re an asset to the State of Israel. We need you on the frontlines of BDS,’ ” Balasha said, referring to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Netanyahu said the group received similar messages from former President Shimon Peres, as well as head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.

David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, is a regular attendee of IAC community events and said that while his and the Israeli government’s natural desire is for Israelis and Jews to live in Israel, they realize the Israeli Diaspora is a fact.

“The question is: Is it organized or not?” Siegel said. “The natural preference is that it is organized in terms of advocating for Israel, but also connected to Judaism. You can’t do that without a community that’s organized.”

He also said he hopes that the IAC’s success can be emulated in other large Israeli Diaspora communities. “You don’t see that independent organization in Europe, for example,” Siegel said. “[The IAC] could be a model.”

Some Israelis also hope Israeli-Americans can “pick up some of the slack” at a time when relations are strained between the U.S. and Israeli governments as well as between many liberal American Jews and the Israeli government, as Halevi, the American-born Israeli author, put it.

“Israelis are becoming more anxious about the state of our relations with the world generally, and with America in particular,” Halevi said. “The emergence of a strong, nonambivalent pro-Israel lobby run by Israeli-Americans is something that I think is going to be noted here and appreciated.” Perhaps, he said, Israeli-born Americans and American-born Israelis, as the only two groups of Jews with a “deep experience” of both American and Israeli Jewry, can serve as “bridges” for American Jews and Israeli Jews.

A mission with a time limit?

The “elephant in the room,” Kadosh said, is whether it’s possible to nurture an Israeli identity among Israeli-Americans in the third generation and beyond.

“That’s the big puzzle,” she said. “We haven’t really addressed [it].”

In fact, said Evenhaim, whenever the board has retreats, they inevitably revisit and re-evaluate their mission. “We say we need to make changes, and then after a whole weekend we rip the mission apart and rebuild it — we have the same mission,” he said.

Although Kadosh said “it’s almost impossible” to keep an ethnic or nationalistic identity as far down the line as the third or fourth generation, she believes the IAC will endure, in part due to the “revolving door” of Israeli immigration to the United States. “We might move back to Israel,” she said of her own family. “My kids might grow up in Israel and later on, in adulthood, come back.”

She predicts that in two generations, Israeli-Americans still will be coming and going from the United States on a regular basis.

The truth — and this is the other side of Israeliness — is that even among its leaders, the IAC doesn’t seem to agree about what the future will hold. Kadosh says one thing; Evenhaim sort of agrees; Balasha disagrees — he thinks the third and fourth generation “definitely will not be Israeli-Americans” yet hopes they’ll be active in the Jewish-American community.

Saidoff thinks the IAC will “morph somewhat,” and didn’t elaborate, but did point out a major cultural divide he sees between mainstream American Jews and Israeli-Americans: “Americans are all about process; Israelis are about getting it done.” He conceded, though, with a laugh, that Israelis “don’t listen much” to outside advice.

Milstein, meanwhile, thinks that in two or three decades, Israeli-Americans will be integrated into the Jewish-American community and will no longer be a distinct entity. “We will not exist as Israeli-Americans 20 or 30 years from now,” Milstein said. “But the Jewish people of America will be by us, and will not be the Jewish-Americans that you have today.”

Asked how Israeli immigrants in one generation will be active in an Israeli-American community if they integrate into mainstream American Jewry, Milstein said he thinks that by then, Jewish-American institutions will have learned how to integrate Israeli immigrants.

About Israeliness, Evenhaim said, “Some would say, ‘Why would you need it? Why not just have your kids become Jewish-Americans?’ ”

“Because,” he said, answering his own question by saying Israeliness can help Israeli-Americans remain Jewish, “we all know the problems of assimilation with the young generation [of Jewish Americans] — a lot of them just don’t remain Jewish.”

What the IAC will look like in two, three or four decades, clearly, is anyone’s guess. But for now, the group is in the planning stages of its second Washington, D.C., conference, which the IAC will hold later this year and hopes will draw twice as many people.

For Americans though, what may prove most interesting about the future of the Israeli-American community, and of the IAC, is how one of the country’s newest immigrant groups will make its mark in the United States, and how it will navigate the challenges faced by all immigrants, such as, generations ago, the Irish and Italians, and, more recently, the Koreans and Latin Americans. How this will play out is probably impossible to predict.

The promise and the unknown stem from something Milstein said at the IAC’s national gala last year: “We’re different.”


Tennessee General Assembly becomes first state legislature to condemn BDS

Posted on April 21, 2015 .

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via  Wikimedia Commons.

(By Sean Savage/JNS.org) The Tennessee General Assembly on Tuesday became the first state legislature in the U.S. to formally condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Senate Joint Resolution 170, initially passed April 9 by the Tennessee Senate in a unanimous 30-0 vote, was approved by the Tennessee House of Representatives in an overwhelming 93-1 vote on Tuesday, with Democratic State Representative G.A. Hardaway the lone dissenter. 

The resolution, which is expected to be signed next week by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, declares that the BDS movement is “one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and advocating the elimination of the Jewish state,” adding that BDS activities in Tennessee “undermine the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, which they are fulfilling in the State of Israel.”

Furthermore, the resolution states that the BDS movement and its agenda are “inherently antithetical and deeply damaging to the causes of peace, justice, equality, democracy and human rights for all the peoples in the Middle East.”

The bill was initiated by Laurie Cardoza-Moore, founder of the Christian Zionist group Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN). Cardoza-Moore worked local Jewish and Christian organizations to bring the resolution to the state legislature.

“With the current climate of increasing anti-Semitism, anti-Israel, and anti-Zionist campaigns, Tennesseans and all people of conscience should endorse public statements of support for our Jewish brethren living in Tennessee and pro-Israel students attending colleges and universities in our state,” Cardoza-Moore said.

According to a PJTN press release, “BDS has an active presence in Tennessee, particularly through The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a group that is a leader of BDS. UT (University of Tennessee) Knoxville alumnus Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a leader in the U.S. Campaign, was this year’s keynote speaker at the national meeting of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a college campus group that has spearheaded anti-Israel demonstrations.”

Tennessee State Senator Dolores Gresham, who co-sponsored the resolution along with State Representative Sheila Butt, said the state’s legislature “chooses to preserve its values by publicly condemning this blatantly anti-Semitic, anti-Israel bigotry, and send a clear message that Tennessee condemns such views.”

Joanne Bregman, a local Jewish activist and attorney who advocated for the resolution’s passage, told JNS.org that the Tennessee General Assembly’s action could serve as a template for other U.S. states to recognize the growing threats of the BDS movement and anti-Semitism. She added that the Christian-initiated bill should be a “wake-up call” for the Jewish community to be the ones “who need to fill the public information void” on BDS and anti-Semitism.


The Times of Israel: Building a community network to fight a hate network

“Given your Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment [from the State of Israel]?” Such was the question posed to Molly Horwitz this month, a junior at Stanford University, as she sought the endorsement of the Students of Color Coalition in her bid for student government. In March at UCLA, sophomore Rachel Beyda faced a similar interrogation, as elected members of the student government expressed concern at a public meeting about her ability to be unbiased given her involvement with Jewish organizations. Questions about bias do not seem to be thrown at students affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group dedicated to divestment and defaming Israel.

From Miami to Madison, from Berkeley to New York, university students are facing an increase in anti-Israel – and anti-Semitic – activity. It takes many forms: divestment resolutions in student government; inflammatory speakers that justify terrorism and express loathing for Israelis; weeklong Israel hate fests masquerading as educational programs.

As the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement sweeps across the country, pro-Israel students are finding themselves up against opponents that are increasingly driven, well funded, and well organized, often at a national level.

Under the umbrella of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and its leading member organizations like American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), the American Friends Service Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (a project of the Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyer’s Guild), the International Socialist Organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and others – BDS campaigns on North American campuses have grown increasingly sophisticated since they first began over a decade ago. Anti-Israel activists are sharing best practices and working together to recruit allies to their cause.

“A wide range of radical groups use the same anti-Israel playbook. They coordinate their efforts, staging the same events, with the same messages, and the same speakers on campuses across the country,” said Roz Rothstein, ceo of StandWithUs. “That’s why we need to continue to build a national – and international – network of Pro-Israel, pro-justice  advocates in response.”

Each fall, more than 150 university students from across the United States and Canada gather in Los Angeles for the StandWithUs Israel In Focus conference – eager to find tools, training, and solutions. Over the course of a very intense weekend, they work hand-in-hand with professional advocates, communications experts, media analysts, and even a survivor of a terrorist attack. Speakers have included Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, communications consultant Neil Lazarus of AwesomeSeminars, and pollster Frank Luntz, who provide in-depth skills training and strategies to advance pro-Israel activities on campus.

In the face of a nationally organized BDS campaign, a new culture of collaboration between pro-Israel organizations is beginning to emerge. The Israel In Focus Conference – and a subsequent conference that took place this year, specifically centered around countering BDS – brought together professional staff and students affiliated with dozens of different groups beyond StandWithUs, including Hillel, Hasbara Fellowships, Israel on Campus Coalition, AEPi, Chabad, Students Supporting Israel, the Israeli-American Council, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and many more.

This strategy reflects a growing sense among Jewish leaders that the many different pro-Israel organizations active on and off campus need to find better avenues for coordinating their efforts and sharing resources.

“This is not a battle against one particular group or on one particular campus. We are fighting against a coordinated international network of anti-Israel extremists. The Pro-Israel community cannot afford to be segmented. If our organizations are working at cross purposes – or in silos – the other side is going to walk all over us,” said Adam Milstein – the President of the Adam and Gila Milstein Foundation – which provided the financial support to stage the Israel In Focus Conference and turn it into an annual event.

Adam Milstein defines his work in the Pro-Israel community as “Active Philanthropy”, meaning that he not only writes checks, but also works in the trenches with organizations on the implementation of programs to make them successful.

He has used his large Rolodex of contacts in the Pro-Israel world – Milstein’s website lists dozens of organizations that he and his Foundation actively support – to create programs that foster synergies between different groups, building on their unique strengths.

On campuses, Milstein has forged collaborative projects between AIEF (the educational wing of AIPAC), Hasbara Fellowships, StandWithUs, Israel on Campus Coalition, Christians United for Israel, the Israeli-American Council, and Students Supporting Israel. This year, he provided funding for more than 250 students affiliated with StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships and the Israeli-American Council to participate in the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC – and for professional staff from other Pro-Israel groups to participate in StandWithUs events.

“Adam Milstein has singlehandedly brought a number of new organizational partners into the orbit of StandWithUs. It’s critically important to have these kinds of connectors —who see the value of getting many different groups around the table to work on the common challenges that we face together,” said Rothstein. “Leadership from the Pro-Israel community’s leading philanthropists in recent years has ensured that our many different organizations are working more effectively and collaboratively than we ever have before, particularly during this last Academic Year. These partnerships make us incredibly proud.”


Jewish Journal: The Israeli-American Council (IAC) goes to Washington DC … and plans to stay


From left: Congressmembers Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Israeli-American Council co-founder Adam Milstein at AIPAC conference. Photo courtesy of the Israeli-American Council




On the evening of March 1, just before a private Israeli-American Council (IAC) event for college students at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, D.C., it was difficult for two of IAC’s co-founders, Shawn Evenhaim and Adam Milstein, to walk more than a few feet without being approached by attendees.

Some thanked them for their support (both Milstein’s family foundation and the IAC have helped sponsor many students’ trips to AIPAC), others sought advice on Israel advocacy and on their careers, while the rest seemed simply to want to talk.

The post-dinner gathering was an opportunity for various pro-Israel campus activists from across the nation not only to meet one another and share tactics and vision, but also to hear from a few Capitol Hill lawmakers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens. 

Coming less than four months after IAC’s big November inaugural conference just a few miles away, and two days after Milstein and Evenhaim announced that the IAC had decided to launch a Washington, D.C., chapter (its eighth nationally), the message was clear: IAC — the largest, if not the only, national educational group in the nation geared toward Israeli Americans — is entering the Beltway and plans to put some of its resources toward creating a federal advocacy arm.

In a March 2 interview at the 12th-floor M Club at the Marriott adjoining AIPAC’s conference center in downtown Washington, Milstein and Evenhaim said IAC’s D.C.-area branch will play two roles. 

First, like its branches in other cities — including ones in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Boston — the D.C. branch will serve as an educational, religious and cultural resource for Israeli Americans in the area. The group says it has reached about 150,000 people through this programming, and its state branches already work with state and local officials on a range of issues.

Second, the D.C. office will be an advocacy arm for Israeli-American interests on Capitol Hill. Evenhaim, the group’s chairman, said IAC’s advocacy activities in Washington will not constitute lobbying. Without elaborating, Milstein and Evenhaim referred to visa laws and education as two issues that particularly concern the nation’s Israeli-American community, which, IAC says on its website, numbers more than 500,000 people.

“Our target is much wider than Congress,” Milstein said, emphasizing that the D.C. branch will be more than just a policy arm for domestic issues important to Israeli Americans. “We feel that we have the natural knowledge to be the ambassadors for Israel.”

And that’s where AIPAC came in. IAC sees its membership as assets for AIPAC, and Israeli Americans who are at AIPAC as assets for IAC. Even when IAC got its start as the Israeli Leadership Council — a group of Israeli-born businessmen formed the group in Los Angeles in 2007 and it was officially renamed the IAC in 2013 — the mission was to bring delegations and sponsor student trips to Washington.

At the March 1 evening event for Mishelanu, IAC’s on-campus arm, pro-Israel college students took the stage one after the other, discussing the challenges they face defending Israel on campus and learning from one another’s successes. Two of the speakers were Jewish students from UC Davis who had successfully appealed to that school’s student judiciary to overturn a recently passed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) bill, on the grounds that it was primarily political and thus violated the student senate’s obligation to focus on student welfare.

And perhaps most exciting for the students Sunday night — and a second early indicator of IAC’s networking abilities on Capitol Hill — Congressmembers Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.) stopped by to give remarks.

“I’m here tonight because of the efforts of this organization to rally Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans to support this incredibly decisive effort to stand up on the university campuses,” Royce said.

At IAC’s inaugural conference in November, some of the group’s draws included former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, and billionaire rival political kingmakers Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, who are both major supporters.

Asked what he anticipates will be the balance in the D.C. branch between its normal work within that region’s Israeli-American community and its advocacy efforts in Washington, Evenhaim didn’t offer specifics but said it will operate similarly to how IAC’s other offices operate.

Evenhaim anticipates the D.C. branch to be “fully operational” within three months.