Olah from UK in Jerusalem builds future leaders of Israel, Asia

The Israel-Asia Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a shared future between Israel and Asia, and educating and connecting the Israeli and Asian leaders of tomorrow. 

 REBECCA ZEFFERT From Liverpool to Jerusalem, 2003 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
REBECCA ZEFFERT From Liverpool to Jerusalem, 2003
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“Strawberry Fields is a two-minute walk from my parents’ home,” says Rebecca Zeffert, referring to the Salvation Army children’s home and garden that inspired “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the legendary 1967 Beatles hit. “John Lennon’s house is just down the road,” she casually adds. 

Zeffert is a proud Liverpudlian, with deep roots in the city in northwest England –  her grandparents on both sides of her family were born there  –  and she says, “I hear home when I listen to a Beatles song.” 

She has roamed far afield since her high school days at King David School in Liverpool, and later at the University of Leeds, having lived in such far-flung locales as Osaka, Shanghai, Tianjin, and her latest, and presumably final port of call, Jerusalem.

“I was drawn to Asia and Asian culture since I was a teenager,” says Zeffert. She began studying Japanese as a teen, and then entered a joint Chinese-Japanese program at the University of Leeds, where she graduated with a degree in modern Chinese studies. 

She studied in Japan in 1997 at Kansai Gaidai University and moved to China in 1998, first living in the port city of Tianjin before moving to Shanghai in 1999. She taught English in China and worked as a writer and photographer for lifestyle magazines. 

People walk at the Bund, in front of Lujiazui financial district of Pudong, Shanghai (credit: REUTERS/ALY SONG)
People walk at the Bund, in front of Lujiazui financial district of Pudong, Shanghai (credit: REUTERS/ALY SONG)

“It was exciting,” she recalls. The Communist Party started to confiscate foreign-owned property and businesses when they came into power in 1949, and by the early 1950s members of the Jewish community  – along with most foreigners  –  had left. 

“The Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin, Shalom and Dina Greenberg, were the first in China since the early ’50s,” Zeffert says, “and I was one of the first members of the official Jewish community in Shanghai. Everyone played a key role in the community.” At that time, Rebecca considered the possibility of living in Asia full time.  

She returned to England in 2001, but after two years she needed a break and decided to visit Israel and participate in a World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program based in Arad. After three months in Arad, she accepted an offer to intern for the Citizens Accord Forum, an NGO founded by Rabbi Michael Melchior, the minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs at the time. The organization was tasked with bridging the gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. When her internship ended, Zeffert was offered full-time employment by the forum as the organization’s public relations coordinator. 

“I thought it would be easier to make aliyah than get a work permit,” she says, smiling broadly, displaying a dimple in her cheek. “I thought I’d make aliyah temporarily and see how it goes.”

Despite her diffident aliyah, Zeffert remained in Israel, working at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a foreign press liaison for six years before becoming a media analyst for APCO Worldwide, a Washington-based global public affairs and strategic communications firm.

WHEN THE worldwide financial crisis hit in 2008, Zeffert’s consulting opportunities dwindled, and she decided to refocus her life on a subject that she knew and liked – Asia. She opened the Israel-Asia Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a shared future between Israel and Asia, and educating and connecting the Israeli and Asian leaders of tomorrow. 

“The concept is not new,” she explains. “There are organizations like ours in the United States and Australia, such as the Asia Society in New York and Asia Link in Melbourne. These organizations are tasked with strengthening those countries’ relations with different countries in Asia.” 

Most, she explains, are educational entities that communicate their ideas through different kinds of programming. “I thought Israel needed a similar organization that could help bridge the knowledge and network gaps that existed between Israel and different countries in Asia.”

What is the importance of Asia to Israel and the world?

Zeffert cites compelling numbers and statistics. “Draw a circle around East, South and Southeast Asia. Sixty percent of the world’s population lives in East, South and Southeast Asia. The region contains three out of 10 of the world’s largest economies, and by 2030 four out of five of the world’s largest economies will be in that area of the world. Asia plays a critical role on the world stage economically, politically and environmentally, and what happens in that part of the world impacts the rest of the world.”

By 2017, Zeffert had been living in Israel for nearly 14 years, but she still wasn’t ready to rule out China. “I decided to get the China bug out of my system,” she says with a grin. “I always had this ‘what if I’d stayed in China’ thing in my head.” She flew to China, working at the Israel-Asia Center in Shanghai, while the rest of her team remained in Israel. 

“China is always amazing and fascinating in every way,” she says, “but I missed Israel. After three months, I was so happy to come back.” 

Zeffert knows that life in Israel is not all sweetness and light – “people here can drive you crazy to the brink” – but her belief that many Israelis lead purposeful lives played a role in her return. “A lot of people in Israel are doing things in life that involve a mission and are engaged in making the world a better place. That is an inspiring thing to be around.”

The Israel-Asia Center is her way of making her own contribution to the welfare of the State of Israel. Today, the organization runs two types of programs. One informs government officials, business leaders, university heads, media and journalists about trends and developments in Asia that are not usually covered in the Israeli media.

The second develops greater cooperation between the future leaders of Israel and Asia, such as an eight-month program held in Israel for Asian and Israeli students and young professionals. And a new initiative, called Israel Indonesia Futures, brings emerging and established leaders together for high-level networking, to promote people-to-people relations in business, innovation, technology and social impact between Israel and Indonesia, which currently do not have diplomatic ties.

ZEFFERT IS dedicated to her job but enjoys travel, cooking, hiking and photography. What are her favorite travel destinations? She says that the town of Ubud in the uplands of Bali, Indonesia, known for its rainforest and terraced rice paddies, is “incredible,” and adds that parts of southwest China and Guangxi province are “stunning.” 

“Cooking helps me unwind at the end of the day,” she says. “It’s very therapeutic. I also love going to food markets – in Israel and other countries – and getting inspired by local ingredients.”

Zeffert says that her command of Hebrew is functional, though chuckling, she adds, “It’s not something I would ever use to impress anyone with.” Though she spent a semester of high school studying in Israel, she did not take the usual route that many take in making aliyah. “In some ways,” she notes, “it was a good thing. I met many people who came to Israel with great expectations about making aliyah, with plans to stay forever, and most of them left. I came with no expectations, so I was never disappointed.” 

Today, nearly 20 years after making aliyah, Israel is home, and in the words of her fellow Liverpudlians, “I don’t want to leave her now.” ■

Contact her: rebecca.zeffert@israelasiacenter.org

REBECCA ZEFFERT From Liverpool to Jerusalem, 2003