Building Israel-Diaspora relations by building careers

Alarm bells started ringing when a major 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed the extent to which younger American Jews are becoming decreasingly attached to Israel.

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November 1, 2018 00:04
2 minute read.
Participants at this Birthright Excel 2018 opening event at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange

Participants at this Birthright Excel 2018 opening event at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. (photo credit: AVISHAI FINKELSTEIN)

 
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The relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is often complex. Religion and state issues, including the Western Wall egalitarian prayer plaza and recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, have driven a wedge between Israel and some sectors of Diaspora Jewry, especially in North America.

Alarm bells started ringing when a major 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed the extent to which younger American Jews are becoming decreasingly attached to Israel.

The largest and most well-known initiative seeking to reverse that trend since 1999 has been Birthright Israel. Founded by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, the organization has so far assisted some 650,000 young Jewish adults to travel to Israel in an effort to strengthen both their Jewish identity and connections to Israel.

Yet with an understanding that even more needs to be done to foster that connection, Birthright Israel’s business leadership program, Birthright Israel Excel, has sought to empower a new generation of rising Jewish business leaders with a strong affinity to the State of Israel. The program has built a 700-strong community of fellows, both in the US and in Israel, since its establishment in 2010.

While the familiar Birthright trip brings participants for a 10-day whistle-stop tour around Israel, Excel offers a 10-week business internship program and an intensive start-up pre-acceleration program. American participants are joined by promising young business-oriented Israelis.

“There is a large group of participants with no previous affiliation to Israel, who haven’t visited Israel before,” Elliot Comite, a former participant and now chairman of the Birthright Excel North American Leadership Board, told The Jerusalem Post. “What they do know, as young Jewish-Americans, is that there is a lot of economic opportunity in visiting Israel.”

Excel aims, Comite says, to bring together various different components of what American Jews are now thinking about: social life, professional development, religious affiliation and connection to Israel. The internship program promises placements in leading Israeli businesses and personal workplace mentoring.


“For many fellows, Excel becomes a way to express many components of their lives in a new, exciting way,” Comite, a growth investor at New York-based Stripes Group, said. “We are building a new way to express Zionism – focused on business and social aspects.”

As the Excel alumni community grows year after year, so does the highly leveraged business network which helps fellows find new jobs and build companies. To date, a dozen participants have started their own businesses. Excel fellows working in venture capital and private equity have successfully raised $200m. in funding deals.

“The program facilitates business in America and Israel. There are now Americans working on behalf of Israeli businesses who understand sales and can bridge that cultural gap,” Comite said.

This weekend, Excel’s annual Excelerate summit will reunite the alumni community in New York for two days of discussions focused around innovative technology, business, philanthropy and the North America-Israel relationship.

Among those due to address the event are World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, chairman and chief executive of Sidewalk Labs Daniel Doctoroff, and founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media Randi Zuckerberg.

“We are a young, growing organization, and we are adding people every year,” Comite said. “The exciting and interesting part is believing that Excel is redefining aspects of the Israeli-Diaspora relationship, both for Israeli fellows and non-American fellows.”

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