The Foreign Minister of Jerusalem
Since being appointed as the mayor’s advisor on foreign relations, Brachie Sprung has met with world leaders and helped raise over a hundred million dollars for projects in the capital city. “A lot of people want to be shareholders of Jerusalem,” says Sprung in an interview as she concludes her tenure in New York. “Our job is to let them.”
By Zvika Klein
[This article originally appeared in Makor Rishon; translated from Hebrew and published with permssion.]
Friday, shortly before the Sabbath comes in, Woody Allen sits down for dinner in a New York restaurant with then-Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, and with his advisor on foreign relations, Brachie Sprung. Allen and Barkat eat from the restaurants specialties, while Sprung is satisfied with a cold salad. “Woody Allen looked at me and asked why wasn’t eating. I told him I only eat kosher, and said ‘don’t worry – I’m managing.’” Alan thought for a moment and replied: “Shabbat is about to come in any minute. Are you planning to go back to your hotel room and eat cold kugel in the dark?” Sprung smiles when she remembers that meeting: “Woody Allen wrote a joke about me – for me that was worth everything.”
The purpose of the meeting was to convince the Hollywood director to produce a movie in Jerusalem. “Allen was very interested in what was happening in Israel, and he even told us that he thinks anti-Zionism is a new form of anti-Semitism,” says Sprung. “I walked back to the hotel, I couldn’t call or write to anyone. I thought to myself: ‘Did this really happen to me?’ Another surprise of note were the relationships I formed like with the late Elie Wiesel and his wife, with Henry Kissinger, and with others. Sometimes I would say to Nir at the end of a trip abroad: ‘How are we going to tell everybody what we did and who we met on this trip?’ And he would always say: ‘Forget about it, they won’t believe us.’ We didn’t go to the press every time or write a press release. We knew what we were doing was good for Jerusalem.”
Sprung (36) is married to Ari, a software engineer, and the mother of three sons. For the last few years she has lived in Riverdale, New York, and this summer she is returning to Israel. She is currently finishing her term as the director of the International Office of Jerusalem Partnerships, whose purpose is to raise funds for the Israeli capital. In that position in Jerusalem she worked closely with Barkat for five years. “I understood that I may not do the foreign press the best way possible, that maybe there were better people/more professional people before me, but I came with drive and an agenda, and our biggest successes are actually the stories you will never read about in the media.
“During our trips abroad we met people at the highest levels. We had meetings with the chief editors of central media outlets, for instance the editor of the New Yorker. Maybe the editor didn’t agree with Nir, but it was our opportunity to brief him about what’s really happening in our city. After all, what you hear about Jerusalem in the world is mainly about terror attacks, stabbings, poverty, the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs. And here we came with a new narrative about a cultural renaissance happening in Jerusalem, a city holy to three faiths with more religious institutions than any other city in the world. A city where you can run a marathon with people from all religions, ultra-Orthodox and secular, a city that belongs to each and every one of them.”
No instruction book
We meet at a Jerusalem café. Her occupation notwithstanding, Sprung is not a native Jerusalemite. She grew up in the village of Mevo Modiim that was resettled by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his followers from the US in the 1970s, known as “the Moshav.” I had a special and unique childhood,” she says. Her parents got divorced when she was young and she grew up as an only child of her father, who remarried when she was eight. “I am completely my father’s daughter, and it wasn’t easy for him to raise me. Think about him being a new immigrant from New York, without a family in Israel. Of course we spoke English at home. What happened is that the ‘Moshav’ became like one big family. ”
As the daughter of a ba’al tshuva she also went through educational turmoil: “I started school at a Chabad school in Lod, because as a ba’al tshuva that’s what he knew.” Later she went to the Ultra Orthodox “Beis Yakov” in the town of Hashmonaim, and finished her schooling at Ulpanat Zvia in Rehovot.
The turning point in her life, and what she says determined the course of her career, were two years of national service. “During my first year I coordinated an organization called ‘Kedma’ for American Jewish youth who come to Israel for their gap year at a yeshiva or midrasha. For the second year I was Shlicha (an emissary) in Los Angeles. It was a culture shock for me: having grown up in a small village, working at a school in Beverly Hills, with all those influential families, it was something that opened my horizons. It was my first exposure to a strong and affluent Jewish community and with it came a realization that they are really comfortable in the US. That they care a lot about Israel and Zionism, but making aliya to Israel is not an option or on their agenda – that was real schooling for me.”
During her national service she also met her future husband, Ari. “With a friend also on shlichot, we met two Israeli guys who were on a post-army trip to the US, and we both ended up marrying them. Two guys who grew up in Katamon in Jerusalem, who we, for some reason, had to travel all the way to Los Angeles to meet!
Sprung came back to Israel and studied political science and communications at Bar Ilan University. After graduating she had to do an internship in communications, and went to friends who worked in the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in the opposition at the time. “Ofir Akunis was Bibi’s spokesman, and I knew Ari Harrow, who told me: ‘Work for Ofir in the spokespersons’ office and get to know the political world.’ That was a quick stint, but I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t really for me.”
Later she worked for Ruder Finn (currently Finn Partners), an Israeli PR company that connects Israeli companies with the international press, and international companies with Israel. Her next professional stop was Present Tense, an organization for social entrepreneurship. She started working for the organization in 2009 and finished four years later as Associate Director for Business Development. And so she arrived well-equipped at her next and most significant professional stop.
It happened when she was invited to Nir Barkat’s office, towards the end of his first term as mayor. “We clicked instantly,” says Sprung. “Within two weeks I was his foreign relations advisor.”
Her transition into this high intensity and demanding job was not easy. “It’s not like there’s an instruction manual ‘how to be the mayor’s foreign relations advisor,’ especially not for the mayor of Jerusalem. It’s the most amazing but also the most complex city in the world.”
She defines her job as “a little foreign ministry within the municipality.” As part of her job she was a press spokesperson for the municipality, worked with embassies and VIPs visiting the city, and managed the mayor’s international travel. “I think there should have been 20 people in that small office, but I had to work with whatever I had.”
Meanwhile, she got to know the world of philanthropy close up. “I discovered that Jerusalem has an extremely committed community of supporters all over the world, who are especially interested in supporting and rebuilding the city. It’s like Jerusalem is extraterritorial, a special place everyone is attracted to. Nir knows how to talk about Israel and Jerusalem to international audiences, in a way that few can. After all, Jerusalem does not belong only to Israel and Israelis but to everyone. Everyone wants to be Jerusalem’s shareholder and our job is to enable that.”
She quickly began being approached by business leaders and philanthropists from all over the world, asking how they could help rebuild and revive Israel’s capital. “We met owners of major sports teams, owners of fortune 500 companies, multimillionaires and billionaires. Everyone wanted to meet us, to be part of Jerusalem, and get a briefing from the mayor. We totally went all in.” Of her travels abroad with Barkat, Sprung says: “Nir works around the clock, you start at 5 AM and end at midnight. The morning begins with a briefing and maybe an interview for a morning show, and only then breakfast with a potential donor. We always made sure to meet with young people and leaders of Jewish communities.
“They always asked Nir: ‘What are you going to do with that city? You have the problems with the Ultra Orthdox and the Arab population,’ and he would always say, ‘to the contrary, that’s our advantage. Jerusalem’s diversity is not a bug, it’s a feature.’ It’s a term he took from hi-tech and applied to Jerusalem. We started working with heads of states, and realized there was an infinite potential that was being underutilized.”
Like Madonna and Beyonce
During the interview, Sprung sometimes sounds as if she were giving remarks or a speech to a global audience; she passionately tries to explain why Jerusalem is the most special city in the universe. “A reporter from NPR told us at a meeting: ‘Jerusalem is like Madonna and Beyonce, you don’t need to explain who they are. It’s the strongest brand in the world.’”
“In the world stage Jerusalem isn’t a small scale player, it has a historic role. Nir could start the day at the New York Stock Exchange, where he rang the famous bell, but at the same time meet with senior journalist Fareed Zakaria from CNN and then a bunch of Jewish journalists.”
Some of the visits included, of course, meetings with Jewish communities: “We provided world Jewry options to better access and understand Jerusalem. After all, they don’t always understand that Jerusalem is 10% of Israel’s population. That it is the largest secular, the largest Orthodox, and the largest Arab city in Israel. Nir would tell them: ‘Let me tell you what is really happening in Jerusalem.’ He wanted to shatter stigmas and misconceptions. To change the narrative about Jerusalem.”
She rattles off names of Jewish philanthropists with whom Barkat was in regular contact during those years. To name a few: “Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban, Lynn Schusterman, Robert Kraft, Charles Bronfman – each coming from a different political background. Meanwhile, there were lots and lots of donors nobody knows, who are maybe one notch below the ones I mentioned. I think the key is actually to go to those donors – those are people who care about Israel, and unlike Ron Lauder, people aren’t waiting in line for them.”
And besides the anonymous philanthropists, Sprung also met celebrities. One of the most famous is Julia Roberts, whom she met at a memorial for the most famous and well known Holocaust survivor in the world, Elie Wiesel. “An award was given in the name of Elie Wiesel, and the event was hosted by Oprah Winfrey. It was a very small event for 100 people at Morgan Library in New York. Julia was there and I went up to her and we started talking about Jerusalem. After all, Elie Wiesel was a very good friend of the city and I thought in this situation it was okay. I think she is ten times more beautiful in real life. She was very interested, asked questions and wanted to learn more.”
Another celebrity is Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who although he is a statesman is also a frequent subject of the gossip columns. “It was at Shimon Peres’s funeral, and Trudeau was brand-new in his job and not that well known in Israel. Since there were so many familiar leaders at the event, nobody went up to him. We were standing right next to each other and started to talk, and of course I snuck in a lot of information about Jerusalem. He was a sweetheart.” She missed Barkat’s meeting with trash queen Kim Kardashian and her husband [the singer] Kanye West because she was abroad, but she accompanied the mayor to a meeting with actor Ashton Kutcher in Los Angeles. “A few years ago we were at a meeting in Los Angeles with Ashton. I sat on the sofa next to him and I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe it was happening. He was chewing tobacco and I didn’t notice and at some point I said ‘you have something in your teeth,’ and he smiled and said, ‘no, I’m chewing tobacco.’”
Actress Sharon Stone and Barkat won the same prize a few years ago, and then she had an opportunity to talk to the star, as well as with Barbra Streisand. She goes on to say that “when Richard Gere was shooting ‘Norman’ in Jerusalem, we were at the set that was in the hangar of the First Station, where they built a set of Saks Fifth Avenue. It was very exciting, especially because they shot it in our city.”
Some of the philanthropy she helped raise could be challenging. “There was a centennial celebration for the New York Federation, and they were looking for a way to mark it in Israel. I said to them at a meeting ‘come to Jerusalem.’ I offered three projects and they politely declined. I explained to them why they should want to invest with us anyway. I spoke their language, about their vision. I explained to them why they should invest in the new Arts Campus where Sam Spiegel and Nissan Nativ schools will be housed – because that would turn Jerusalem into the city they wanted it to be – creative, diverse and one that attracts people from all backgrounds. In the end they were convinced and invested $20 million.”
Another project she is proud of is the Kraft Family Sports Campus inaugurated in 2017 in the Arazim Valley in Jerusalem: “I knew that Robert Kraft wanted to build a standard football field in Jerusalem, and we couldn’t enlarge the Kraft field that already exists next to Sacher Park, so I suggested he help us build the new sports campus that would have professional fields for a range of sports like soccer and basketball. I said ‘why don’t you invest $5 million with us?’ The rest is history. Now the sports campus is named after him.”
Between two mayors
In her five years on the job, Sprung had to deal with emergencies and crises. “One day I got a phone call at 5 AM. It was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chief of staff, telling me Bloomberg was on a flight on the way to Israel. It was at the peak of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and he decided to fly to Israel to express solidarity. The chief of staff said that usually they send an advance team to prepare the visit, but this time everything happened at the very last minute. They said they didn’t have a schedule and needed help. I said to him: ‘I’ll get back to you in an hour – I’m on it.’ I planned his visit from A to Z, and of course it was in my interest for it to be mainly in Jerusalem, for him to have his picture taken at the Western wall, and for Nir to accompany him for the whole visit.” Bloomberg spent only four hours in Israel, but Sprung controlled the event.
How does a young mother manage such a demanding job?
“My life is crazy. I can be bathing my kids and at the same time be on a call with a respected philanthropist. I’ve locked myself in the bathroom a few times to have quiet so I could make an important phone call. My parents are very proud of me. My oldest son Nadav is 10 now, and he always tells me how proud he is of what I do.
“It helps that my three sons like sports and many of the donors I work with are owners of major sports teams. My kids came to the Formula One race in Jerusalem and understood that their mother is helping to rebuild the city. And of course I have the support of an amazing husband. He understands that I do important work and his parents have always helped. I would go out at seven in the morning and come back only at midnight, sometimes I came to my son’s school and they would ask: ‘Whose mother are you?’”
Sprung’s persona is so dominant and persuasive that she was the inspiration for the role played by actress Neta Riskin in Joseph Cedar’s film “Norman.” In an interview with Riskin for Makor Rishon she talked about her meeting with Sprung, where she learned of a lot of small nuances. “One of the things Brachie taught me is that your bag is very important,” said Riskin. “Advisors’ bags are a kind of status symbol, that shows whether you are somebody or not. Secondly, your bag is a kind of shield. When you carry a big bag it serves as a sort of barrier and protection against whoever you are facing.”
“Cedar talked to me about the character of the advisor in the movie, and asked me if I would coach Neta,” says Sprung. “She joined me for meetings and I explained to her all about my work. It was fun. For instance, she asked “in a meeting where do I sit in the room?”
Another interesting meeting she had was with the Jewish-Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman. “I’ve been told by so many people that I look just like Natalie, and I always loved her. We were both born at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and we are Israeli-Americans. She was shooting ‘Tale of Love and Darkness’ in Jerusalem, and since the production received support from Jerusalem, she met the mayor. I was so excited to be meeting her that in the elevator, when it was just the two of us, I said to her ‘I was always told we look alike.’ She wasn’t as excited as me, I guess she couldn’t see it.”
Almost three years ago Sprung moved her family to New York at the request of Barkat, and launched the International Office of Jerusalem Partnerships. “We realized that there was a lot of work to do for Jerusalem and an opportunity to raise money for institutions and projects in the city. Nir said he thinks we need a representative on the ground, to understand what the donors want, to sit with them all the time. I became the representative of Jerusalem in America. I worked closely with a number of foundations that we were in touch with and we set up a kind of foundation whose purpose is to bring additional philanthropy to Jerusalem. Supported by the Leichtag Foundation, its main goal is to facilitate partnerships and opportunities in fields as diverse as archaeology, culture, and education. Not a single shekel goes to the city itself, but rather to NGOs” she explains.
“The donors are excited that I know how to work with the local government in Israel, after all, not all of them are comfortable or have the know how of how to work with the Israeli bureaucracy, so I opened many doors for them. I work extremely closely with the municipality and the department heads, I actually try to help reshape the way the department directors in City Hall think about fundraising.”
She estimates that over the eight years since she has been working for the city and now in the International Office of Jerusalem Partnerships, she has helped raise about $100 million for various projects in the city. “People don’t know that projects like Derech Milton (Park HaMesilah) or the aquarium were funded by donors from the world, as well as the Haas Promenade or the Museum of Tolerance that is being built in the city today.”
A little over half a year ago a new mayor was elected for Jerusalem, Moshe Leon. Sprung, a confidante of the outgoing mayor Barkat, found herself at a crossroads. “Moshe brings a lot of experience, in his years in the opposition he proved that he wanted to learn and get to know the city. He has great interpersonal skills. I was on a tour with him recently in the US. At both the AIPAC conference and then at Jewish schools, I learned that the Mayor of Jerusalem, whoever he/she is, will be a rock star on a world tour. Even though Nir was connected to the American community and Moshe less so, it didn’t really matter – you should have seen the respect he got in the US, it says a lot about the role. Moshe continues to carry out many things that were in Nir’s vision and it is great to see that happening.
“I promised Moshe I would help him get started, and that I am here for Jerusalem, whoever the mayor is. You should have seen a thousand Jewish children greet him with Israeli flags at the Yeshiva of Flatbush New York. He looked at me when he entered the school, and I think that was the moment he understood the magnitude of his role. After all, those children learn about Jerusalem every day, and suddenly the mayor, the symbol of that city comes to visit them. He is like the mayor of the Jewish world.”
She tries to characterize the differences between the two mayors: “Nir is very business-oriented and Moshe has a very personal side. They will each succeed because it is a crucial role and everybody wants Jerusalem to thrive. Me, the residents, and the Jewish world. There was not a single person who did not want to meet him. Nobody says no to a meeting with the mayor of Jerusalem.”
But after two and half years in New York, the Sprung family is coming back to Israel. “It was amazing to live in the New York Jewish community, my children go to the SAR Academy; it’s an incredible school and has a lot to offer. It is a school that all of the Israeli VIPs visit but we’re ready to come home, we want our oldest son to be more Israeli than American.”
Her professional future is not completely clear, but she has a few exciting offers. “I will continue to work for Jerusalem, in whatever role I end up,” she promises. “You can take the girl out of Jerusalem but you can’t take Jerusalem out of the girl.”