Connecting the Start-Up Nation

Meet Michael Eisenberg and Yasmin Lukatz

Yasmin Lukatz is an Israeli-born businesswoman who lived in the US for 18 years. She is the executive director of the Israel Collaboration Network (ICON), an organization that created a Silicon Valley-based community to harness and support Israeli start-up technology and innovation.  (photo credit: Amit Naim)
Yasmin Lukatz is an Israeli-born businesswoman who lived in the US for 18 years. She is the executive director of the Israel Collaboration Network (ICON), an organization that created a Silicon Valley-based community to harness and support Israeli start-up technology and innovation.
(photo credit: Amit Naim)

Yasmin Lukatz and Michael Eisenberg have a lot in common, even though they have gone in different directions: Lukatz was born and raised in Israel but spent most of her professional life in the US, becoming a prominent entrepreneur and investor. Eisenberg was born and raised in the US but became one of the most successful investors in Israeli tech companies.

Lukatz and Eisenberg met and had an hour-long discussion about Israel’s relations with Jews in the US, as part of a joint project between The Jerusalem Post and the Ruderman Family Foundation in honor of Israel’s 75th Independence Day.

“I grew up in a 100% secular family,” Lukatz recounted. “I remember my father teaching me about Yom Kippur and saying that the most important thing is that you don’t eat in public, which actually I thought was a great lesson about tolerance and about accepting other people. I went to the synagogue with the other kids and we played outside. We heard the shofar. But it wasn’t really a religious experience for me.”

She explained that she lived in the US in two different periods. When she was in 10th grade, her mother, Dr. Miriam Adelson, flew to the US for a sabbatical. “She signed me up to Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in New York. I wore long skirts. It was a very questionable decision. So that wasn’t a very different perception of what Judaism is because I think that in Israel, Judaism is perceived as either secular or Orthodox; there’s not a lot of room in between.”

But during her second round in the US, which was substantially longer (18 years) and at an older age, something changed: “I learned so much more about Judaism than what I knew before,” she said, recalling that period. “I saw that [Judaism] isn’t black and white. It’s not just Orthodox or secular. There are so many amazing shades of Judaism in between: There are Reform and Conservative [Jews] and some that do just this and just that. You can also be a practicing secular Jew.

“So, when I came to the US for the second time, my kids went to a Jewish school, but it wasn’t Orthodox but rather Reform; we had a female rabbi, and there were lots of songs and music involved. That was a very different experience for me.”

Lukatz explained that it took her a while to get used to this new type of Judaism in the US. “In the beginning, it was weird for me to drive to synagogue in the car. This was not what I knew about Judaism, and that’s the beauty of it. I loved it and I loved going to all the events my kids had at school; the beauty of the songs and how accepting it is to everyone. I felt that I belonged very much in that it was very real and felt at home.”

Lukatz shared that growing up, she never imagined a situation where someone from her family would marry someone that wasn’t Jewish. “I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t not Jewish. There was no one in my world who wasn’t Jewish until I was 16 years old.”

Lukatz also explained that she only realized, after moving to the US as an adult, that “you have to make an effort” in order to be Jewish outside of Israel. “You have to exercise your Jewish muscles to be Jewish and make sure that your kids are Jewish.”

Eisenberg joined the conversation, sharing that he actually grew up in Manhattan; therefore, he never really had the sense of community that Lukatz spoke of. He made aliyah as a young adult and said that “the flip side for me is that being on the same calendar matters a ton. I think the calendar is the foundational definer of identity.”Lukatz: “What do you mean by the calendar, like school breaks?”

Eisenberg: “I mean like Passover is the holiday here, not Easter. Hanukkah is the holiday here, not Christmas. I don’t know why there’s no school on Hanukkah but nonetheless, it is a holiday, just like Sukkot and others. You don’t have to manage your work calendar, school calendar in an offset from the Jewish calendar, and I think that matters a ton.”

 Michael Eisenberg is an American-born Israeli businessman, venture capitalist and author. In 1993, he  and his wife, Yaffa, immigrated to Israel. They have eight children. He is the co-founder and general partner of Aleph, a Tel-Aviv-based venture capital firm. (Credit:  Ruderman Family Foundation) Michael Eisenberg is an American-born Israeli businessman, venture capitalist and author. In 1993, he and his wife, Yaffa, immigrated to Israel. They have eight children. He is the co-founder and general partner of Aleph, a Tel-Aviv-based venture capital firm. (Credit: Ruderman Family Foundation)

Eisenberg added that in his opinion, “language also carries with it a culture and anthropology. Hebrew matters in that regard as well for what they call Judaism – I just prefer to call it Israeliness; not in the national sense but in the biblical sense, Bnei Israel, the children of Israel, going back thousands of years.”

WHILE DISCUSSING the issues of Judaism in Israel as opposed to the US, Eisenberg said that he thinks “the biggest threat to American Jews is assimilation, not antisemitism, by a long shot.” He added that he thinks the assimilation of American Jews will also be a threat to Israel over the long term.

“When you look at the statistics, the community numbers and community experiences that Yasmin talks about, have not done the trick,” Eisenberg continued. “On the other hand, Yasmin’s point was that everyone she knew [growing up] was Jewish, so we actually don’t worry about assimilation here in Israel. And we know exactly who our daughters will marry if they live here. I think that for the long-term survival of the Jewish people and for the strength of Israel, that matters a lot.”

He added that “the future of our people is here in Israel. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t Jewish experiences outside of Israel.

“I think a part of what Yasmin is expressing, by the way, is because political Jewishness is so baked into the everyday experience, everyone in Israel takes it for granted. Unfortunately, at times Israelis need to actually go to the Diaspora in order not to have to take it for granted and be confronted by this notion that maybe your daughter will not marry someone Jewish. Add on to that the fact that religion, which is a term I use loosely, has been politicized here in Israel and in an absolutely awful way.”

EISENBERG, AN Orthodox Jew, tried to analyze the situation of secular Israelis leaving Israel, by explaining that when Israelis leave Israel, that may be the first time they “are exposed to a religious or cultural experience which is not politicized. And politics makes us all angry. Therefore, when we see that Jewishness is politicized, I think it’s corrosive. When Yasmin moved to America, she was able to peel away that political layer so you can kind of experience it with an open heart, without having to have political feelings.”

Eisenberg continued to say that if it were up to him, he “wouldn’t get married at the Rabbinate,” explaining that “I really think it’s nuts. I don’t see why people need to leave the country because they don’t want to get married at the Rabbinate, they just want to have their own Jewish experience. It makes no sense to me.”

Lukatz: “I agree with assimilation being a great danger to the future of the Jewish people. This is why I think Birthright is so important, especially during these days. There’s actually research showing that the amount of young Jews per age group that will assimilate is 30% less if they participate in Birthright Israel. I do think it’s extremely important for the future of the Jewish people that there is a strong connection between the Jewish community in the US and in other places.

“As important as it is for Jewish people to be here, it is as important for the Jewish people to be connected and to be strong. And it’s our responsibility to make sure this connection is a bridge and not a gap or a divide. It is important for the future of Israel to have a strong community over there [in the Diaspora].”

Eisenberg: “I kind of agree with that, but I think about it a little differently. I think it’s inevitable that there will be Jews in other places; whether it’s good or bad, we can debate, but it’s inevitable. I also think that it’s important for Israel to be an aspirational place that people feel the Jews around the world look up to and feel good about. Not that they just view it as the place to run away to, but that it is a meaningful part of their lives. I think it is incumbent upon us who live here to make Israel that aspirational place.”

Lukatz added: “I want to practice Judaism because I want to, not because I have to. I was actually surprised that you [Michael], as an Orthodox person, said that you would rather not marry in the Rabbinate. I guess that if I had a choice, I would have still married there, just to make my parents happy. But I want to make a choice. I want to decide. I don’t want to be forced into doing those things. So this is what really bothers me.”

ASKED WHAT types of joint ventures Israel should offer Diaspora Jewish communities, Eisenberg gave an example of an initiative that Lukatz started recently. “I think what Yasmin is working on with Code for Israel is big, and we need to bring Diaspora Jews in on this in a big way.” Code for Israel is a volunteer movement of Israeli men and women from the hi-tech sector who contribute their time and expertise in order to develop technological solutions that are intended to solve deep social challenges.

Eisenberg said, “I would love to see a Jewish-Israeli version of the Peace Corps that would be composed of Jews and Israelis who would together go to countries around the world, deploying Israeli innovation to societies that need assistance. I think that would be a huge deal. A third project I’m passionate about is using Israel as a lab for innovations for the rest of the world. My own personal passion is to use Israel as a lab for the future of capitalism, which I think is a big topic that needs to be addressed right now.”

Lukatz: “Michael, I have a question for you. What are you more – Jewish or Israeli?”

Eisenberg: “I reject that dichotomy. I’ll explain: This moment that we’re in right now around this reform and the protests in Israel, we’re in a transitional phase where we are attempting to define for the first time what Israeli identity actually means. We actually never did it. We’re working through this notion of what this state and its people here have become and how that’s fused. Those identity moments are transformational in history. So the answer is, I think your question is an anachronism. It’s related to the first 75 years of Israel, not the next 75 years of Israel.

“This moment is so important because, over the next bunch of years, it will define the foundational identity of our people for the next 75 years. That’s what we’re in the middle of right now and it’s messy. It always is. But you see everyone grabbing the flag. Why is that? Because people want to be part of this thing called the State of Israel. But everyone’s got a little bit of their own vision of what it is, and for 75 years nobody has wanted to open the can of worms. We are not a survivor country anymore. We are going to be a prosperous country going forward.

“We will have the upper hand over time here in Israel over Diaspora communities, which are shrinking, and the majority of the Jewish people will be in Israel. So we need to define and redefine that relationship going forward to be more of a partnership because, for 75 years, Israel has been supported. And now we’re going into a partnership role with Diaspora Jewry, and that needs to be redefined as well.”

Lukatz: “Yesterday, I walked down the street and I saw so many people walking with the flags, and it really gave me goosebumps. I remembered my dad’s stories of being an eight-year-old kid when the State Israel was declared. He remembers all the people dancing in the streets. I was speaking with my friend from Boston on the phone, and I told her that this feels like something new is being born.

“It feels like so many people are proud of the flag and then walking with the flags; and whatever their opinions are, they want to express it. It is like a rebirth of something new and amazing that they will be asked in the next 75 years or more about. I’m sure this is what people felt like in 1948.”

The interview is a joint project of the Ruderman Family Foundation and The Jerusalem Post in honor of Israel’s 75th Independence Day, recognizing its special connection with US Jewry.

For more information: Ruderman Family Foundation 

A special project of the Ruderman Family Foundation