Johanna Arbib-Perugia, the former chairwoman of the United Israel Appeal World Board of Trustees – the youngest person to ever serve in such a role – is an individual who commands respect for her wisdom, passion and vitality.
“She is the best example of service in our generation,” said former MK Eliezer ‘Moodi’ Sandberg. “She is the future of the Jewish people.”
And now, with a new leadership position just underway, Arbib is set to play a pivotal role in the future of Israel and its most vulnerable people. In July 2014, Arbib was appointed president of ALEH, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.
“ALEH makes sense for Johanna,” said Julia Koschitsky, herself an activist, philanthropist, and previous leader of UIA-Canada and world Jewry.
Koschitsky noted that ALEH exemplifies the basic core Jewish belief that Jews should care for society’s most vulnerable, and strive to alleviate hardship for those less fortunate.
“It is Johanna’s goal to make society strong, to give those who are weaker hope and optimism,” she said.
Arbib was born and raised in Rome.
After obtaining a degree in business administration she began a career in international business and finance.
She is currently senior adviser to a London- based international real estate private equity fund and head of external relations for an international real estate group.
She started her career as a Jewish activist in 1995 when she was only 16 years old. Four years later, she founded Rome’s Young Leadership group. In 1999, she became chairwoman of Keren Hayesod Rome, and six years later she was appointed a member of the UIA Campaign Cabinet. In 2009, she was elected as chairwoman of the organization’s World Board Of Trustees, a position she held until this year.
Arbib said that everyone is born with a mission in life. Some people go through life unsure of what their role should be.
But she feels she knows her calling.
“There are two elements that are most important to the development of my life: One is the teachings of our forefathers, the Torah. The second is the State of Israel. These are also the two components I think are most important to the Jewish people – past, present and, most importantly, future,” said Arbib. “My mission is to try to convey this message to as many as people as possible... It is in my blood.”
She describes serving the Jewish people as “my privilege” and said that she sees ALEH as encompassing the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world). “There is no better expression to the definition of tikkun olam than giving privileges to handicapped children, to give them an opportunity to live their lives with dignity.”
ALEH runs several residential facilities for children who are unable to live at home due to the severity of their disabilities.
It provides medical and paramedical care, special education and creative vocational opportunities, recreational fun and social activities and a variety of other outpatient services. ALEH receives funding through UIA, which was how Arbib first learned of the organization.
ALEH is funded by the government and through private donations. Arbib said she was first inspired when she heard a talk by ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran chairman Doron Almog. He told the story of his son, Eran, who was born with severe brain damage, and how ALEH offered him and his family a framework of support for their son through more than two decades of challenges.
ALEH treated Eran like a human being worthy of dignity, and helped him realize his potential despite the difficulties.
This, Arbib said, is fundamental to what she hopes to accomplish as a philanthropist.
“Philanthropy is about making change in people’s lives,” said Arbib.
“The Jewish people cannot lose hope.
We never lose hope. This is what ALEH is for these people, for their families. It tells them and teaches them that even in the most difficult situations life can go on.”
Arbib said she hopes that public relations will be a key component of her leadership, not only in hopes of raising additional funds for ALEH but because the charity can show the world the superior way in which Israel cares for its most needy.
“It says something about our country,” she says.
Former ambassador to Italy Avi Pazner met Arbib in 1991. He says he detected “a quality of leadership” back then and feels that Arbib is a woman with a huge of amount experience and much to offer.
“‘But’ and ‘no’ do not exist in Johanna’s vocabulary,” said Koschitsky. Still, Arbib admits it has not always been easy.
She said it is challenging to be a woman in a man’s world – both on a professional and philanthropic level.
“I always ask myself, ‘Can women achieve the same goals as men?’ It is much harder to do. I think we have to work harder,” Arbib said. “But women are made to work harder.”
She noted that she regularly struggles to find the right balance between her professional life, being a wife, and raising her three daughters. But she says her greatest challenges are also her greatest successes.
She would not wish to change anything.
“When choosing a philanthropy [to support], you need to make sure the money is well invested and the programs they are investing in are there to stay... You want to have impact,” said Arbib, noting she found this in her previous roles and is confident she will find it again with ALEH.
She continued: “My advice: If you are going to get involved, never follow – always lead.”