Judith Yovel Recanati: “A Big Heart with a Woman Inside”

[This article is part of an overview of Israeli philanthropy today.]

An interview with one of Israel’s foremost philanthropists
by Frayda Leibtag

When Judith Yovel Recanati and her late husband Dr.Israel Yovel founded the Gandyr Foundation in 2004, they invited their three daughters to join the family foundation as equal partners. “When I was growing up, the businessmen dealt with philanthropy. We created the Gandyr Foundation because we wanted our daughters to be involved in the world of giving. We extended an invitation, but were not sure that they would accept; we thought that they would say that they were too young and not ready for the responsibility,” remembered Yovel Recanati.
The Yovel daughters, who were in their twenties at the time, were excited to accept their parents’ offer, especially since they did not assume that they would be asked to join the foundation in the first place. According to Noa Yovel Maoz, the middle daughter, “Not many parents offer this opportunity to their children. Most people who establish foundations want to focus on their own personal agendas. It is not so simple to have five people sitting around the table, yet my parents offered us an equal vote and voice in determining the goals and funding priorities of Gandyr.” Gandyr, in Hebrew, is an acronym for family members Gili, Noa, Daria, Judith, and Rolly (Israel).

Explaining how the foundation has transformed the family, Yovel Maoz said, “As a result of our involvement with the Foundation, we have been exposed to the world of philanthropy. We have also become deeply familiar with the third sector in Israel and the organizations and activity taking place here. Beyond this, however, is the impact that the creation of the Foundation has had on our family on a micro level. By establishing the Foundation, my parents created a platform for our family to discuss our ideals, values and visions for the State of Israel. The Foundation has monthly board meetings but we also talk about these things at Friday night dinners.”

“Since the establishment of the Foundation, the topics that I discuss with my daughters have expanded way beyond the realm of typical mother-daughter conversations,” agreed Yovel Recanati. “The Foundation has empowered us to think together, to take on responsibilities and be more involved, to become familiar with social issues, to be creative and to make impactful decisions that affect many people and organizations. It is a real pleasure to have my daughters participating in this process with me,” she said.

For Yovel Recanati, the decision to involve her daughters in the family’s philanthropic activity was a natural one that followed in the footsteps of her grandfather, Leon Recanati, who was the head of the Jewish community in Salonika, Greece. In the early 1930s, the elder Recanati recognized the clear signs of the Nazi threat and led a large group of Jews to Palestine. After realizing that not one of the 70 existing banks in Israel was run by Sephardim, he founded the Palestine Discount Bank in 1935 and employed immigrants from the Balkan states, enabling them to start their lives here.

“I was born into a family that integrated philanthropy and business from the very beginning. Giving and being involved in Israeli society is part of my DNA. It is a privilege, but also an obligation,” stated Yovel Recanati.

Always looking to update and innovate, the Yovel family founded the Gandyr Foundation with the intention of implementing business principles in their philanthropic activity. In addition to funding, grantees of the Gandyr Foundation receive advice on finances, collaborations and the full support of the board of directors. The Foundation is currently focusing on strengthening the infrastructures of programs that support young adults, ages 18 to 30. One of the Foundation’s successful programs is a partnership with the Jerusalem Municipality and five youth movements to create a platform for cooperation between the groups.

“We want to encourage young people in Israel to get involved in politics and to be influencers and agents of change. We want to empower them, connect them and teach them to be their own advocates so that they will stay in Israel and envision their future here as contributing members of society,” explained Yovel Recanati.

Growing up in Israel, Yovel Recanati was an active leader in the Tzofim community scouts and served as a Women’s Corps and Welfare Officer in the Israel Defense Forces. After completing degrees in archeology and photography, Yovel Recanati studied art therapy at Lesley College and psychotherapy at Bar Ilan University where she met psychiatrist Dr. Yossi Hadar, who was her thesis advisor. Together, Yovel Recanati and Hadar founded Natal-Israel’s Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. Tragically, Hadar passed away two weeks before the official opening of Natal in June 1998, strengthening Yovel Recanati’s resolve to make the center he had envisioned a reality. Since its establishment, the organization has helped 170,000 victims of war and terror-related trauma embark on a path to healing. Yovel Recanati has served as Chairperson of the association since its establishment and works full-time on a volunteer basis. She also personally finances 25 percent of the organization’s NIS 14.5million annual budget. “Judith decided to finance the overhead of Natal so that every shekel that people donate goes directly to the work that the organization is carrying out,” explained Orly Gal, Executive Director of Natal.

Elaborating on Yovel Recanati’s devotion to Natal, Gal recounted how “when the second Lebanon War erupted, Judith was abroad. The moment she heard the news, she immediately flew back to Israel. Her commitment to Natal is unwavering. She has incredible drive and knows how to set goals and bring them to fruition. Judith’s vision, philanthropy and modesty are truly extraordinary.”

Yovel Recanati’s dedication to Natal has made a strong impression on her daughters. “At home, we always say that Natal is our fourth sibling,” said daughter Noa. “From the beginning, we pitched in by sending out letters and helping with the renovation of the Natal building. The creation of Natal is a significant part of my mother’s life and has become an important part of our lives as well,” she said.

In addition to her work at Natal and the Gandyr Foundation, Yovel Recanati is actively involved in forming a new map of Israeli philanthropy. She is a member of the Israeli branch of the Jewish Funders Network and chair of the March 2015 JFN conference, a board member at Sheatufim and involved in third sector organizations such as Midot, Lion of Judah-Israel and others. In addition, Yovel Recanati is a member of Committed to Give, because she is a firm believer in the need to rebrand philanthropy in Israel as an opportunity to create significant change in the country.

“The most important thing we can do is set personal examples – for our children and for others. My late husband was a medical doctor and I worked for years as an art therapist before founding Natal. We were both role models for our daughters of what it means to give, day in and day out,” said Yovel Recanati. The three Yovel daughters have also chosen career paths that enable them to give on a daily basis and they view philanthropy as an important part of their lives. Noa, a mother of five, is already implementing giving practices at home. She explained, “In our house, the children’s allowance is divided into thirds: a third for something they want, a third for something they need, and a third is allotted to give to someone else in need. By starting on a small scale, we hope to imbue the value of giving into our children. At the end of the day, however, the personal examples that we set are the most important thing of all.”

Gal, Natal’s Executive Director, accurately described Yovel Recanati as “a big heart with a woman inside.” Yovel Recanati has committed her time, her financial resources and her life to making the State of Israel a better place. Her devotion and relentless efforts are creating positive change and a real sense of optimism and hope for Israeli citizens. Yovel Recanati concluded, “My story is an Israeli one. I see myself as a Zionist and am happy that my daughters live here and see their futures here. As a family and as a foundation, we feel responsible for effecting change for young adults. Israelis need to understand that giving is a social responsibility, and a means for effecting change and influence. Anyone who has the ability to give should donate to causes they believe are important. We must impart this message to future generations of Israelis.”