awards season

IsraAid’s Yotam Polizer announced as Charles Bronfman Prize recipient

In the more than two decades since it was founded, IsraAid has arrived on the ground to help provide medical and humanitarian aid in crises across the globe.

IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer, this year’s Charles Bronfman Prize recipient, is driven, in part, by what he calls “working with people from other cultures. Essentially, I call it active anthropology.”

In an interview with eJewishPhilanthropy, recalling his role as part of the team that rescued a Nepali woman who had survived for five days under the rubble of the 2015 earthquake northwest of Kathmandu, Polizer credited his extensive prior work in the mountainous country — but also connected the operation’s success to an experience he had far closer to home. 

At the time, Polizer had been working for IsraAid, the nonprofit Israeli refugee aid organization, for four years; prior to that, he worked for three years in Nepal for Tevel b’Tzedek, an organization that brings Jews to do development work in the country. When he returned in 2015 he came with deep familiarity, and a knowledge of the language. 

He also brought with him a lesson he had learned earlier in life, as an Israel Defense Forces soldier with an atypical job: teaching youth leadership in a Bedouin community in Israel’s Negev Desert. Although at the time he was based in his home country, serving in its army, the experience taught him the importance of educating oneself about a place’s people and culture before jumping in to help. 

“I had to build trust with the local community, and I think that’s something that we really do apply a lot in IsraAid,” Polizer told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Yes, we’re coming as outsiders. Yes. we’re coming to help… But the key is to come with a lot of humility — and not just by saying it but actually practicing humility in the sense that [you’re] showing real interest in culture and in local people’s lives.”

Polizer was IsraAid’s second employee, after founder Shachar Zahavi. Now, the organization has a budget of approximately $20 million and 320 employees spread across 14 countries. And this year, Polizer is being honored for his and the group’s work with the Bronfman Prize — a $100,000 award launched in 2004 and given to a humanitarian activist younger than 50. 

Polizer will be presented with the prize at a ceremony in May in New York City. He said he plans to donate part of the money to IsraAid’s operations, though he hasn’t decided which specific area to give to yet. 

“Yotam was chosen because IsraAid is not a government operation, it’s an entrepreneurial philanthropy,” said Charles Bronfman, in whose name the prize was founded by his children and their spouses. In the time since Polizer was hired, Bronfman added, “it’s made huge strides, increased its budget God knows how many times, and has done God’s work… He’s spearheaded an organization that now is usually the first in a country or an area, like Ukraine, that’s in humanitarian trouble.”

In the more than two decades since it was founded, IsraAid has arrived on the ground to help provide medical and humanitarian aid in crises across the globe. It has served victims of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Syrian and Afghan refugees and civilians in and around Ukraine who are in need due to Russia’s invasion — among other populations. Some 70% of its employees are local to the countries where it works. 

Now, a major focus of the group is the Ukraine crisis. IsraAid now has more than 30 people on the ground inside Ukraine and another dozen or so in the neighboring countries of Moldova and Romania. In addition, Polizer told eJP the crisis had spurred more Israeli donations to IsraAid than it had received during the previous two decades combined — a sum of more than $2 million. IsraAid has committed to being in Ukraine for five years.

“You can’t isolate the Ukraine crisis,” Polizer said. “The crisis in Ukraine impacts the food crisis in Africa, where we also operate and not enough people know about… For some people, we believe that the Ukraine crisis opened their heads and hearts for vulnerable communities and refugees around the world, while for others, they only focus on Ukraine and nothing else.”

The work can be more challenging, he said, when it feels like there’s no end in sight. One example, he said, is the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which has 250,000 people and in which IsraAid provides services. 

“These people’s life in limbo is semi-permanent, so when you don’t see a political solution for refugee problems, the work that we do is a lot about easing human suffering,” he said. “So while we believe it’s very important, and we do it, it’s also very frustrating and very depressing to not see the end goal to this crisis.”

Polizer, 39, grew up in Harashim, a small village in northern Israel, the son of a school counselor and a social worker. Before serving in the army, he volunteered at a boarding school for children from underprivileged backgrounds — including some families that suffered domestic violence. About half the students were Ethiopian-Israeli.

The same impulse to bridge cultures drove Polizer to learn Nepali during his time in that country. He began working with IsraAid while taking part in its response to the 2011 tsunami in Japan — where he also met his wife. 

He spoke with eJP earlier this month from Japan, and jokes now that he lives “mostly on a plane.” In 2019, by his count, he took 113 flights, and after a lull during the pandemic, that pace is picking up again: He is slated to visit a total of 12 countries in January alone. 

“If you ask me what is the thing that was most impactful in the local community, it was the fact that I spoke their language,” Polizer said of his time in Nepal. “Not only because I could communicate with them… but more because it was a very empowering experience for them… An outsider from the West, from a rich country is coming and saying, ‘I want to learn from you guys, I want to speak your language.’”