Keren Karev: The Israeli Branch of ACBP

Members of the SPNI, Green Course, and Arava communities protest the start of a contentious mining project in the Samar sand dunes, which are located north of Eilat and were slated to be used in construction there.
Members of the SPNI, Green Course, and Arava communities protest the start of a contentious mining project in the Samar sand dunes, which are located north of Eilat and were slated to be used in construction there.


[We are pleased to share with you a series of essays from Reflections: Thirty Years of Focused Philanthropy. This publication is composed of essays, anecdotes, and photographs acknowledging the many partners of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP). These partners have contributed meaningfully to our success. The nine core programs, which we initiated and guided during our many years of activity, will continue in the future, while not under our auspices. And, in addition to these core initiatives, ACBP has granted funds to some 1,820 organizations over the years.]

By Janet Aviad

I have a rare opportunity to describe and analyze an institution with which I have been involved from its establishment in 1986 to the present stage of winding down.

My introduction to Charles and Andy Bronfman was almost accidental. I am quite sure that I am the only one who remembers that I helped organize and attend a meeting in Montreal where the goals of the Israeli branch of the new Foundation were discussed. Stephen P. Cohen, the President of the incipient Foundation, had invited me to accompany a group of high powered Israeli figures from the worlds of politics, academia, and culture, who had been invited to discuss the critical issues in Israeli society and the potential role of a foundation in contributing to their resolution. I functioned as the secretary of the group, and was thrilled with the opportunity to hear the analysis and debate.

Steve asked me to help him put together the Israeli delegation. I had made Aliyah in June, 1973 and was teaching in the School of Education of the Hebrew University. The delegation was charged with the task of defining the goals of the CRB Foundation in Israel. That was the beginning of my foundation career, although there was no job at the time, and the Bronfmans did not know me very well.

I helped Steve in the following months as a volunteer, planning for the meeting with members of the Israeli delegation. When it became obvious that a staff presence was necessary in Israel, Steve asked me to work on a part-time basis.

In 1986, I was introduced to Jack Brin, a well-known Jerusalemite businessman, who had worked for years for Charles Bronfman in Claridge Israel, Inc. He had been assigned the task of finding an office. We became friends immediately, and when Jack called me to come and see a building on 1 Marcus Street in the center of Talbiya, I knew we were onto a find. We purchased the magnificent building from the Hebrew University, and transformed it into a wonderful Foundation office.

The main task in the initial years was to translate the theoretical goals of the Foundation, which were being refined constantly, into actual programs. The Bronfman family had been active for two generations in funding key Jewish institutions in Canada, many of which supported Israeli institutions. Setting up a family foundation, however, demanded a new level of involvement that enabled creative thinking and innovation. My task was to understand the “head” of the Bronfman family and the Foundation’s Board, and then to identify concrete programs through which the goals they had outlined could be realized.

The overall objective of the Foundation was to overcome gaps in Israeli society, and to bring disparate groups within the Israeli population closer together. The gaps were enormous: rich/poor; men/women; orthodox/secular; Jews /Arabs; new immigrants/veterans, to list a few. The Hebrew name of the Israeli branch of ACBP, Karev, comes from the root krv, which means to “draw closer.” ACBP is referred to as Keren Karev in Israel.

We chose education as our main area of focus, determined to help equalize the major gaps in the educational opportunities between children coming from the center versus the periphery, and from middle to upper class children versus children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Keren Karev launched Project Involvement in 1990. The purpose was to provide supplementary hours of enrichment subjects. This would increase the numbers of hours in the school day and expand the curriculum to include a variety of cultural programs otherwise unavailable to these children. Thus, students in elementary schools in Beit Shemesh, who routinely returned home at 1:00 p.m., engaged in after-school classes until 2:00 or 3:00 p.m., and learned music, theatre, arts, electronics, etc. through informal educational methods.

One of the programs’ basic principles was to involve parents in choosing the curriculum for their children, which was an unusual and welcome change in a highly centralistic system. Hundreds of enrichment programs were developed, approved by a curriculum committee of pedagogical experts, and then presented to a special school committee, composed of parents, teachers, and principals. The committee reviewed the many options and chose subjects fitting their school interests.

In just two years, the program had expanded to six development towns and was well established in Jerusalem and in Beit Shemesh. By 1992, Project Involvement was attracting national attention, and it was precisely at this time that the Government of Israel was seeking employment opportunities for the thousands of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) who were making Aliyah. Our enrichment program was identified as a potential vehicle within which many immigrants could be employed as teachers of subjects that did not demand mastery of Hebrew. We were asked to expand to as many towns as possible, thereby providing jobs for the new immigrants and enrichment subjects for additional thousands of Israeli children.

The Foundation’s leadership agreed to expand Project Involvement dramatically. A special budget provided by the Ministry of Finance, and a new partnership with the Ministry of Education resulted in the tremendous growth of Project Involvement. In 1993 alone, eight school districts grew to 40. The small and interesting educational model was on the way to becoming a transformational national program.

By 2014, the Project had grown to be the largest intervention in the Israeli school system, encompassing 2,250 kindergartens, 735 elementary schools, and 300,000 children with a budget of $50,000,000.

These figures indicate the huge scope of the Karev program and its great leverage for ACBP. Project Involvement became a platform for educational change. Enrichment hours were used to develop experimental programs in many fields: environment, Jewish culture, music, logical thinking, and many more. In addition, cooperation with the Ministry of Education enabled the program to reach out to children identified as “at risk” and provide them with mentors and support. Project Involvement brought enrichment programs to a large number of schools within the Arab sector, which was a new development, and to a small number of Haredi schools, which is a pioneering effort.

Close cooperation with the Ministry of Education over a period of 25 years led to the decision that Project Involvement would be absorbed within the Ministry completely as of September, 2014. Israeli children, especially those in lower socio-economic communities, continue to benefit from the broad range of cultural subjects available to them through the enrichment programs.

In contrast to more bureaucratic institutions, family foundations can be bold, quick, and innovative. ACBP could react swiftly and with courage when the Government of Israel turned to it to take the lead in a new area of activity. In the optimistic years following the signing and partial implementation of the Oslo Agreements in September 1993, the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority sought to firm up diplomatic agreements through joint activities on the ground between the two peoples. The idea was that personal involvement in joint projects could help overcome the hatred, stereotypes, and suspicions that each people held towards the other.

In 1995, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a good friend of the Bronfman family, turned to the Foundation and asked if we would be the Israeli partner in the project. Similarly, the Norwegian government requested a Norwegian NGO, FAFO, to represent Norway, and the Palestinian Authority delegated authority to The Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy (PCPD). These three entities assumed leadership and administration of the project. The Planning Committee functioned for years in defining calls for proposal, selecting worthy projects, and monitoring and evaluating them.

Projects included academic research and surveys, youth programs, business cooperation, and public school cooperation. Hundreds of projects were planned and executed by Palestinians and Israelis. The work was often pathbreaking, bringing together people from various professions who envisioned a better day and who could not stand by and do nothing. While the Second Intifada put an end to most of the projects operating in 2000 and 2001, the spirit of the five years when People-to-People diplomacy programs functioned broadly and with strength demonstrated that change can take place and that thousands of people can be involved in these activities. The program represents a lighthouse of a more hopeful period, and is a model which can be regenerated when political reality permits.

The Norwegian-backed effort was not the only cooperation and coexistence project with which ACBP was involved. The Belgian-Israel-Palestinian Cooperation in Applied Scientific Research, Training and Education was initiated in 1996 by Belgium’s Administration of Development Cooperation (BADC). ACBP was invited to be the Israeli partner, together with the Palestinian Consultancy Group, chaired by Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University. Major research projects were defined and sponsored in medicine, agriculture, nutrition, history, and physics.

Several years later, Keren Karev and Palestinian partners established the Israeli Palestinian Scientific Organization (IPSO), which is still sponsoring joint academic projects.

In 1996, at the beginning of its second decade, Keren Karev entered the area of the environment, where few foundations were active and where the tasks were enormous. During the first decades of its existence, Israel focused on defense, immigration, education, and other fundamental bricks of nation building. Environmental issues, as such, were largely ignored. However, during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was no longer possible to ignore questions of open space, air, and water pollution; public health, transportation, energy, and more. NGOs emerged in response to developing needs, attempting to arouse public awareness, and influence the environmental policy of industries, municipalities, and the national government.

ACBP’s strategic decision was to use funds dedicated to the area of environment to strengthen the grass roots organizations, large and small, and to introduce environmental education into the Israeli school system. We established the SHELI Fund, a competition for small grants, to help groups organize to overcome local environmental problems. Our approach was to boost both fledgling and growing efforts in civil society and to establish environmental justice as a national value.

In 2001, several of the foundations active in the environment area joined together to create a unique and strong coalition called the Green Environment Fund (GEF), which at its peak included six foundations. GEF strengthened the environmental movement by providing support to leading environmental organizations such as the Israel Union for Environmental Defense and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Major activities included: protecting natural resources (air, water, bio-diversity, open spaces); environmental leadership and education; environmental justice and health; transportation and urban planning.

Several outstanding grants in the area of culture in Israel made this another major aspect of the Bronfman Philanthropies in Israel. The first strategic grant was given to the Education Department within the IDF to develop a cultural program for combat soldiers on Sunday mornings where the transition from home to base was made. The program was known as Sundays of Culture. From morning until noon, plays, concerts, and films, were made available to thousands of soldiers in the big cities. Each performance was usually followed by an analysis and interpretation of the work, involving its author or those who acted in it. Soldiers had an opportunity to participate in a cultural experience, often for the first time, and discuss ways to understand and enjoy it.

In addition, in the cultural sphere, the Bronfmans focused on two major institutions: the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), whose base is Heichal Ha-Tarbut in Tel Aviv.

When Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek conceived of a national museum for the young state on a hill in Jerusalem, he turned to Samuel Bronfman, who funded the first wing in the new museum. The Samuel and Saiyde Bronfman Archeology Wing opened in 1965, and became the showcase for archeological finds of Israel and neighboring cultures, serving an enormous educational function for the new nation. In the late 1990s, Charles Bronfman agreed to fund the renovation of the archeology wing. When a total renovation of the museum was undertaken in 1996, led by its new director, James Snyder, the archeological wing’s plan was fully integrated into the overall renewal plan.

The renewed Samuel and Saiyde Bronfman Archeology Wing is a central part of the museum and most popular among visitors. It is divided into seven historical sections that flow one into another. The archeological material is presented in stunning cases, and with texts that are highly informative and understandable to all.

Charles Bronfman decided to make one more major contribution to Israeli culture, this time in Tel Aviv. This was not the first time Charles had helped the Israel Philharmonic. In the late 1990s, he and Andy had funded a new program aimed towards young people called IPO in Jeans. In June, 2013, the renovated Heichal Ha-Tarbut Hall, famed home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, re-opened, dedicated to Charles Bronfman. The acoustics and structure of the renovation have enabled the IPO to reach new levels of excellence and the large audiences to enjoy wonderful music, thereby enriching the cultural life of Tel Aviv and all of Israel.

Working with the Bronfman family and with my colleagues over the years has been a rare privilege. Together we were able to make a difference in several fields, thereby benefiting all citizens of Israel and the Jewish people. The smiles on the faces of the kids learning archeology in Lod, building a radio station in Tiberius, and banging on darbukot (drums) in Bat Yam say it all.

Janet Aviad has been the Director of the Israel Office since 1986.