It was the perfect storm: two former Israel activists, both recently laid off
from their hi-tech jobs after the Internet bubble burst, both looking for a way
to combat all of the anti-Israel propaganda swirling around the second
When Michael Eglash and Eric Esses joined forces to create the
pro-Israel marketing firm Upstart Activist, today Upstart Ideas, the timing
couldn’t have been better. Their policy of encouraging college-age activists to
travel to Israel just happened to coincide with the founding of Taglit-
Birthright Israel. Suddenly, advocacy for Israel on college campuses wasn’t just
empty lectures and slide shows – they could offer students a free trip to
Israel, to come and see for themselves.
Eglash and Esses met in the
1980s, as leaders of large Jewish organizations on their college
fervent Israel supporters. They both made aliya after college – the
of Wisconsin- Milwaukee for Eglash and the University of Texas at Austin
Once here, Eglash helped found Mercaz Hamagshimim, an
English-speaking community center, and Esses was the director of Otzma.
eventually moved into hi-tech when the Internet seemed like an endless
And just as the second intifada was breaking out, both
found themselves out of work as the venture capital companies
“Watching the foreign news – CNN, Sky News, Fox – was very
concerning and deeply troubling at that point,” says Eglash. “I thought
what motivated me to come here in the first place. I thought about all
experiences and connections to Zionism and the Jewish people.
“I said to
Eric, we’re both out of a job, both victims of the Internet bubble
here’s an opportunity to educate people about what’s really happening in
Esses was also surprised, not by the news but by the lack of
passion on college campuses. “I saw that the response to the unbridled
anti-Israel activists was almost nonexistent,” he says.
In December 2001,
Upstart Activist was born as a unique combination of a pro-Israel
and an educational organization, creating educational materials to
promote pro-Israel activists on college campuses. The company started
three-pronged approach: presenting Israel effectively through hasbara,
anti-Israel propaganda and, most importantly, encouraging people to come
“We always felt, in any hasbara work we did, that the absolute
goal of any activity on campus should always be that the students in
be offered practical ways to get to Israel, because there’s no better
learn about Israel than to come see for yourself,” says Esses. “Many
organizations felt the real cure to anti-Israel activity on campus was
another good lecture or presentation, that would stifle once and for all
anti- Israel campaigns on campus. But of course that’s not how it works.
always try to couple whatever materials and components and education
we bring to students with a call for getting people to Israel.”
the company started just as Birthright was getting off the
Encouraging college students to come to Israel was much more
feasible, now that they had the opportunity to travel for
BIRTHRIGHT and its trip organizers were Upstart’s first clients,
and still are its biggest. Gideon Mark, CEO of Birthright, can’t even
when they started working together, since the partnership fit so well
can’t imagine functioning without the other. “[Upstart is] headed by two
talented professionals who know the trips, they know marketing and they
target audience,” says Mark.
“This is the triangle that allows them to be
As 24,000 participants get ready to come this summer
through the Birthright framework and more than 10,000 were put on the
list, Eglash and Esses can look back and smile at the early days when
to practically beg American college students to come on the free 10- day
When Upstart was founded, Birthright had public relations
challenges on two fronts. First, the second intifada made visiting a
to Americans. And second, no one could believe that this organization
offering a free trip. Students were waiting to see what strings were
Upstart pioneered the first Birthright ambassador programs,
knowing that no one could recruit students better than other students.
company developed the technology behind a computer program that could
referrals and recruitments, rewarding effective ambassadors.
to harness the excitement of returnees by getting them to bring their
“That’s the entire proposition and it worked unbelievably:
giving alumni a structured and simple way to say thanks by giving them a
framework for telling their friends.”
Both Eglash and Esses agree that
initiatives like the ambassador program were due in a large part to
business and activism experience. There’s lots of overlap between the
worlds, Eglash explains, like creating messages, creating a brand and
strategies to educate, inform and raise awareness.
Because Upstart is
located here, it concentrates on partnering with wellknown organizations
have an established network of members or activists. It can then design
customized programs or educational campaigns to present a specific
Israel, like a recent interactive slide show for the Combined Jewish
Philanthropies of Boston highlighting its economic and technological
The hope is that college students can show the slide show to their
give a personal touch to the information presented.
Other clients include
Aish International, which partnered with Upstart to launch the Hasbara
Fellowships, one of the biggest pro-Israel campus organizations.
groups, like campus Hillels, Jewish federations and the Jewish National
have also tapped Upstart’s intimate knowledge of the American college
when it comes to Israel advocacy.
FOR UPSTART, the campus is a magical
place where future opinions can be molded like nowhere else. “This is a
where they’re very much open to a message,” explains Eglash.
“This is the
age demographic in which these opportunities are being offered for the
reason,” adds Esses. “They have the ability to change, to incorporate
in their life.”
College is the sweet spot for internalizing the
pro-Israel message, they say. “If you go too late, it’s a whole
game. If you go too early, it’s also not relevant because they can’t
own decisions,” says Esses. “They are on the front lines of anti-Israel
activity. For adults, the most aggressive anti-Israel sentiment is in
newspaper. They can close the newspaper, drink their coffee and go off
whatever. But on campuses, you’re dealing with giant rallies where
used to show Palestinian deaths and the so-called Israel Apartheid Week.
anti-Israel forces on campuses are really trying to defame and undermine
Israel’s legitimacy in very real and tangible ways. Everywhere else,
it’s just a
war of ideas and it’s much more palatable because you can’t get away
things people get away with on campus in a normal community.
And their message is certainly working.
with Oranim for many years during which it became one of the largest
trip providers. Two years ago, it started doing marketing and
the Sachlav trip provider, which went from sending 11 buses per summer
to 31 buses this summer.
“I found that Michael and Eric are not just
really good salesmen,” says Divon Yron, the founder and CEO of
“They have a lot of experience connecting between Jewish values
and ideals and expressing those values. They have a lot of common sense
knowledge that they bring to the table; they use it for getting good
with the marketing process.”
Yron also praised the duo’s tenacity, an
important trait when it comes to pro-Israel advocacy. “In the Birthright
of 2008 [when the budget was lower because of the worldwide economic
they had just started working with us. I asked them, ‘Are you giving up?
is promising that Birthright will come back [to past levels soon],’
situation with Birthright was really foggy,” Yron says.
“They said, ‘No,
we’re not looking for short term, we’re looking for long term.’ They’re
good players for long term, because they cannot do nothing when it comes
The pro-aliya company also tries to hire exclusively new olim to
work in its office, located in an old youth group building tucked in
Nayot neighborhood, next to Sacher Park. It has two or three employees,
the number of projects, who usually stay for a year, long enough to get
experience and get over the hurdle of finding that first job here.
plans include a joint venture with Sachlav to create a long-term MASA
called “Real Life Israel,” a five-month introduction to Israeli society
will kick off this fall.
The volunteer and career development program is
the “culmination of our work,” says Eglash. “There’s a silent minority
wants to know what it’s like to live here. There’s a critical mass of
have been on the Birthright trips and they’re hungry for more.
gave them an amazing opportunity to see Israel, they’ve been inspired
motivated by it and they want to go a step forward. This trip will allow
Other Jewish organizations should look to Birthright and
see how deeply coming to Israel affects a Jewish activist, Eglash says.
number one challenge is to encourage organizations to put travel to
the top of their agendas,” he adds, “because these people will come back
inspired and want to give back to the Jewish community.”