“In 1920,” says Sam Grundwerg, World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA (United Israel Appeal), “Keren Hayesod was established as the preeminent organization to raise funds from communities around the world for the Zionist enterprise. Fast forward to today, 103 years later, and we are still as relevant as ever.”
Recently, Grundwerg, together with Rafi Nasser, president of the United Israel Appeal in Sao Paolo, Brazil, joined this writer in a wide-ranging discussion via Zoom about the organization, its recent accomplishments, and its upcoming World Conference that will be held from April 23-27 in Tel Aviv.
Since its founding, explains Grundwerg, Keren Hayesod has raised funds for Israel from Jewish communities around the world, excluding the US, to promote its three-pronged agenda – assisting in aliyah and absorption, strengthening Israeli society and connecting between Jewish communities worldwide and the State of Israel.
The first pillar of Keren Hayesod-UIA, says Grundwerg, is aliyah. The organization is continuing its support of aliyah and the absorption of new immigrants into Israeli society. Aliyah remains a huge priority, he says, and adds, “We played a strong role in 2022, assisting aliyah from Ukraine and large numbers of olim from Russia. In 2023, we see continuing record numbers of aliyah from Russia and other parts of the world, including Ethiopia, where we recently sent a delegation led by Steven Lowy AM, Chairman of our World Board of Trustees, and myself. There, we could see with our own eyes the challenges and work we still have ahead of us.”
The second pillar of the organization is strengthening Israeli society by assisting the weaker segments of the population, such as the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, Holocaust survivors, the elderly and youth at risk.
Grundwerg cites the organization’s providing bomb shelters in Israel’s north and south for the civilian population as an example of its care for Israel’s citizens.
“We are uniquely positioned as a bridge between 60 different Jewish communities around the world.”Sam Grundwerg, World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA
Keren Hayesod-UIA’s third area of concentration strongly emphasizes the development of young leadership and making connections between Diaspora communities and the State of Israel, with programs like Masa that bring Diaspora youth to live and work in Israel, through the Jewish Agency.
Today, Keren Hayesod conducts 60 fundraising campaigns in 45 countries around the world. “We are uniquely positioned as a bridge between 60 different Jewish communities around the world, as well as for non-Jewish friends of Israel in the world,” says Grundwerg.
Though Keren Hayesod is an apolitical organization, he adds that it plays a vital role in preserving the unity of the Jewish people, especially in today’s fragmented political climate. “We have an important role informing and educating, and keeping our supporters up to speed about what is going on and promoting unity and solidarity,” says Grundwerg. “In doing all of our work, which is above politics, we call and promote unity, solidarity, dialogue and mutual respect.”
"Keren Hayesod gives us the opportunity to participate in the story of the Jewish people and belong to the State of Israel"Rafi Nasser, president of United Israel Appeal in Sao Paolo, Brazil
Rafi Nasser, president of the United Israel Appeal in Sao Paolo, Brazil, epitomizes the international flavor of Keren Hayesod. Born and raised in Sao Paolo, Nasser, whose father came to Brazil from Aleppo, Syria, has been involved with the organization’s activities since 1985. “When I was in my first year of university studies,” he recalls, “I began working with the United Israel Appeal. That year, the hit single “We Are the World” was produced in support of Africa. At that time, Israel rescued 6,000 Ethiopian Jews. I thought to myself, ‘People are singing, but Israel is actually doing something.’”
Nasser, a successful business leader who owns a fabric factory, is a volunteer lay leader, who invests a great deal of his time and effort on behalf of the United Israel Appeal in Sao Paolo. “Working for the United Israel Appeal,” he says, “is therapeutic for me. I feel that life is not only about work. Keren Hayesod gives us the opportunity to participate in the story of the Jewish people and belong to the State of Israel. With Keren Hayesod, you can belong to the State of Israel. It is your connection.”
Keren Hayesod’s annual leadership conference is being held on April 23-27 in Tel Aviv, in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary. This year’s event, which will be attended by thousands of Keren Hayesod leaders, President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is being held in conjunction with the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America. Conference attendees will visit Keren Hayesod projects that are being built throughout Israel by the Jewish Agency. On Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, attendees will participate in Masa’s ceremony at Latrun, and will gather at Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv to kick off Israel’s 75th anniversary festivities. One of the highlights of the event will be the presentation of the prestigious Yakir Awards, celebrating the achievements of the organization’s most distinguished leaders.
Rafi Nasser will be one of the award recipients, and he says that receiving the prize is a great honor. Yet, he adds, “The award is for my past service to the organization. Instead, I am thinking about my future in Keren Hayesod. Receiving the prize will inspire me to work for many more years in the organization.”
He adds that it is important to visit Israel to see the projects that Keren Hayesod has developed. “When we come back to Sao Paolo,” he says, we have something that we can show them.” Nasser recalls visiting friends in Raanana and learning that the Aliyah Absorption Center in Raanana had fallen into disrepair. As a result, he says, the women’s division of the United Israel Appeal in Sao Paolo will soon be embarking on a project to renovate the center.
Grundwerg does not minimize the importance of celebrating Israel’s birthday during these difficult times. “For us, it is important to come together physically, to celebrate together, to hear from leaders of Israel, to see the projects, and realize that just as we have to go through challenges and difficult times together, we also come together for moments of joy and celebration. It wouldn’t be a complete gathering of the Jewish people without our brothers and sisters from communities around the world. We are looking forward to having them and celebrating together.”
This article was written in cooperation with Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal.