A Different World, Yet So Similar

Participants on Taglit-Birthright Israel's Start-Up Nation group having copies of the book signed by co-author, Saul Singer; image courtesy Steven Rosenbaum, sr-graphics.com.

by Daniel Adler

Israeli culture is different from American culture. Obviously. Israel is about the size of New Jersey. It has a population of seven million. And yet it produces more start-ups per capita than anywhere else in the world. The Taglit-Birthright trip I’m on is modeled on a book called Start-Up Nation. The book outlines reasons for the current Israeli paradigm. Young Americans often approach its author, Saul Singer, and thank him for writing such an informative introduction to Israel. He laughs. That wasn’t his intention – rather he and his co-author, Dan Senor, wanted to explain why Israeli culture is so conducive to tech start-ups. The book has been translated into countless languages and is so successful that one Israeli hi-tech company I became familiar with, Intigua, offers it to its new customers.

After experiencing the Israeli South for five days, our 44 group members, 10 of whom are Israelis, split into teams of 11. On a rainy Jerusalem afternoon, we had a few hours to brainstorm ideas for our own start-up. This was after we had a profound experience on Shabbos at the Kotel, the Western Wall. There I began to understand the depth of my Jewish history and the interconnectedness of all Jews. This was further reinforced by walking around the Old City, seeing how contended for this city was, and how people of three different traditions wanted to claim it as their own because they could sense the sanctity of this hilltop city.

The next morning we began the crux of our Start-Up adventures. After a fascinating talk by Saul Singer, my group and I met the founders of Intigua, a virtual management start-up. Shimon Hason is the CEO, a smart guy who the Cedar Fund, venture capitalists we had the pleasure of working with, recruited out of
MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Shimon explained the basics of his highly technical venture over delicious Israeli pastries. Then we had alone time with one of the four VCs who had recruited him three years ago.

A venture capitalist looks at four points when evaluating an idea: what problem does it solve; what’s the size of the market (it should be upwards of $500 million); who or what is the competition and how does the idea change the game; and finally, how feasible is it? Some groups stayed up until four in the morning working on their presentations. Our idea was for an app that allows you to order food more efficiently than FreshDirect (online grocer providing fresh foods, groceries and household items delivered to the New York area). The VCs told us that they fund many of their start-ups after making a personal connection, seeing an individual’s talents and noting their dedication and passion (hint, hint). Then they told us that while Israelis are talented technically, we North Americans excel at marketing.

Why do they believe that? I had attributed it to size. Since Israel is so small, its market is small. As a result, Israelis don’t have the choices most Americans have. Perhaps that’s why they’re content to pay nine dollars for a hamburger after waiting in line for 25 minutes at McDonalds – they don’t have the option of going to Burger King, Wendy’s, White Castle, or any of the other chains we see at any Interstate crossroad. And with so many choices, as Shimon Hason told us, the best market focus for Israelis is the United States, which is why Intigua has offices in Boston and Tel Aviv.

Saul Singer writes that somewhere between school, mandatory army service and work, most Israelis spend a few years traveling the world. Indeed, an Israeli on our trip told me that one of the first questions she hears after meeting someone is: “Where are you going to travel.” In New York, our second introductory question is: “What do you do.”

Israel is a tech incubator for many reasons, which you should read Start-Up Nation to better understand. It is insulated from the rest of its region by fatwa (an Islamic religious decree). Israelis travel to gain outside perspective, but by nature they are used to thinking in order to sell. Many Americans, on the other end, bombarded by choice and open highway, diversify their interests through spending – and having a good job is the best way to do that. Both countries value individualism, creativity and financial success. But the way these values manifest themselves is, quite naturally, different.

Those differences were hardly obstacles on my path to developing relationships. The Israelis on our trip were particularly willing to share information about their home, and help us order shuwarma without getting ripped off. The fact that we all came from common ancestors allowed me to more deeply understand that no matter how far apart we are, we are all interconnected, even if it is subtle and spiritual, capable of being felt only if you are attuned, a notion that Kabbalah advocates.

Learning about the history of Zionism, Judaism, and the State of Israel gave me perspective on what it means to be Jewish. Coupled with the burgeoning technology industry centered around Tel Aviv, the overall experience allowed me to reconcile past and present, Israel and the United States, and Zionism and me. It showed me that overall, the differences between us aren’t all so different.

Daniel Adler from Portland, Oregon, was one of the participants in the program. Adler studied English and philosophy at NYU, is an avid blogger and writes copy for SEO agency, Ajax Union, in New York.