By Shoham Nicolet
Ten years ago, in mid-2007, something unprecedented happened: a cross-section of Los Angeles’ most prominent Israeli-American business leaders gathered in one place to talk about community and philanthropy. It marked a major shift in mindset, planting the seeds for a new organization that would grow into a nationwide movement – the Israeli-American Council (IAC).
Everyone who was in that room at the Beverly Hilton remembers Jona Goodrich, z”l, who inspired his younger colleagues as he spoke about the joys of philanthropy, explaining how and why donating money and time pays dividends. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa discussed the unique potential of Israeli-Americans, citing the special impact that they had made on his career.
Several of the IAC’s co-founders shared their passion as well. Naty Saidoff said, “We Israelis hate to be freiers (suckers)” – articulating that a common belief among Israelis in the Diaspora had been that philanthropy was for suckers – and then proudly proclaimed, “Well, I aspire to be a freier!” Danny Alpert called involvement in the community “miluim” – our reserve duty. Adam Milstein shared his own bold vision for a future Israeli-American organization that could bring people together. Former Consul General of Israel Ehud Danoch, who came up with the idea for the gathering, spoke about the attendees’ historic responsibility to the generations to come. Later, Shawn Evenhaim joined our leadership, deepening our expertise in the field of Jewish education.
The IAC was born. We grew rapidly, reaching out to more than 25,000 people within a year. We had a big dream – at least we thought our dream was big. Then, a few years later, Sheldon Adelson told us what he thought “big” could be. With the support of him and his Israeli-American wife Miriam, we have turned the IAC into the fastest-growing Jewish American movement, reaching 250,000 people nationwide.
As the architect of our organization’s strategic plan, I met with each of the soon-to-be founding board members one-on-one. I wanted to better understand what brought these exceptional individuals to the table. Why did they want to devote their time and resources? Ten years later, our more than 100 council members nationwide give the same – often very personal – answers.
Everyone talked about a need for Israeli-Americans to transition from an isolated, immigrant population into a cohesive and connected community. 10 years ago, they understood that we are not just Israelis living in America temporarily. We are Israeli-Americans.
Every founding board member talked about their kids and grandkids as a primary motivation. They wanted their families to stay connected to their their Israeliness and Jewish heritage. They were extremely passionate about mobilizing the community in support of Israel. It was also important for them to making sure we became connected to the established Jewish American community.
The IAC’s official mission has had some semantic changes over the years, but, at its core, our mission has not changed: We are still working to build a community that strengthens the next generations, Israel, and the Jewish American community.
Ten years later, the main elements of mission statement still ring true, but we have also learned so much as we have adapted the IAC to changing reality. As we mark 10 years, it is an important time for reflection.
The Next Generations
The core activity of IAC has never changed. We have always believed that strengthening the Jewish and Israeli identity of the next generations is critical for their future, and it has remained at the top of our priorities.
Over time, we have realized that the second and third generations of Israeli-Americans are our “secret sauce.” Their unique hybrid identity, and ability to speak both “Israeli” and “American,” is an invaluable asset not only to our community, but to the larger Jewish American community as well.
Programs like IAC Mishelanu on college campuses and IAC Eitanim for High School students bring to life how the “Israeliness” of our second and third generations equips them with a unique ability to connect others – outside of the Israeli-American community – to Israel.
Our past fear that our kids would lose their connection to their roots has been turned on its head. Instead, they are embracing their heritage, and connecting others to it as well.
The State of Israel
The IAC was born out of a frustration that our community didn’t have the tools or mechanism to defend Israel when it was attacked in America. In 2008, we were heartened by our ability to quick mobilize thousands in support of Israel; over time we have learned that there is more to advocacy than simply turning out advocates in displays of solidarity.
As Americans, we can serve as a living bridge between the people in the United States and the people of Israel. Our personal stories are Israel’s story, and when we speak with our fellow Americans, we can share the reality of our childhoods, our families, our heritage, and our identity in ways that no one else can. We come together with many voices, but Israeli-Americans are united through passion and unconditional love for the State of Israel.
Jewish American Community
From day one, it was important for us to be connected to the established Jewish-American community. We knew that we had a lot to learn from the most successful diaspora in Jewish history – and that our children’s future was intertwined with the future of the greater Jewish American community as well.
10 years ago, we believed that the IAC’s role would be to become a bridge to the Jewish American community, today we know that we are a living bridge within the Jewish American community. Our goal became to move Israeli-Americans from isolation to integration, while maintaining our unique identity.
We understood that, as 10 percent of the Jewish population in America, we had something unique to contribute: our Israeliness – the strong connection to the Hebrew language, the State of Israel, Israel’s culture and heritage, and everything that comes with it. In the face of the growing assimilation of Jewish-Americans and the growing chasm between the Jewish people and the State of Israel, we can and are playing a vital role – serving as a bridge between our Americanness and our Israeliness, between Israelis and American Jews, and between Israel and America.
Since that fateful event at the Beverly Hilton, the spark of our idea has ignited into a transformative movement, with a range of dynamic and innovative programs that are connecting Israeli-Americans to each other – and to the broader Jewish community – in ways that would have be unimaginable just a decade ago. I suspect that the coming ten years will bring more of the same.
Shoham Nicolet is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Israeli-American Council.