Zionist start-up

Two olim have turned advocacy into a way of life.

Eglash 311 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Eglash 311
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
It was the perfect storm: two former Israel activists, both recently laid off from their hi-tech jobs after the Internet bubble burst, both looking for a way to combat all of the anti-Israel propaganda swirling around the second intifada.
When Michael Eglash and Eric Esses joined forces to create the pro-Israel marketing firm Upstart Activist, today Upstart Ideas, the timing couldn’t have been better. Their policy of encouraging college-age activists to travel to Israel just happened to coincide with the founding of Taglit- Birthright Israel. Suddenly, advocacy for Israel on college campuses wasn’t just empty lectures and slide shows – they could offer students a free trip to Israel, to come and see for themselves.
Eglash and Esses met in the 1980s, as leaders of large Jewish organizations on their college campuses and fervent Israel supporters. They both made aliya after college – the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee for Eglash and the University of Texas at Austin for Esses.
Once here, Eglash helped found Mercaz Hamagshimim, an English-speaking community center, and Esses was the director of Otzma. Both eventually moved into hi-tech when the Internet seemed like an endless horizon of possibilities.
And just as the second intifada was breaking out, both found themselves out of work as the venture capital companies crumbled.
“Watching the foreign news – CNN, Sky News, Fox – was very concerning and deeply troubling at that point,” says Eglash. “I thought about what motivated me to come here in the first place. I thought about all my experiences and connections to Zionism and the Jewish people.
“I said to Eric, we’re both out of a job, both victims of the Internet bubble burst, and here’s an opportunity to educate people about what’s really happening in Israel.”
Esses was also surprised, not by the news but by the lack of passion on college campuses. “I saw that the response to the unbridled attack of anti-Israel activists was almost nonexistent,” he says.
In December 2001, Upstart Activist was born as a unique combination of a pro-Israel marketing firm and an educational organization, creating educational materials to support and promote pro-Israel activists on college campuses. The company started with a three-pronged approach: presenting Israel effectively through hasbara, combating anti-Israel propaganda and, most importantly, encouraging people to come to Israel.
“We always felt, in any hasbara work we did, that the absolute goal of any activity on campus should always be that the students in attendance be offered practical ways to get to Israel, because there’s no better way to learn about Israel than to come see for yourself,” says Esses. “Many activist organizations felt the real cure to anti-Israel activity on campus was simply another good lecture or presentation, that would stifle once and for all the anti- Israel campaigns on campus. But of course that’s not how it works. So we always try to couple whatever materials and components and education resources we bring to students with a call for getting people to Israel.”
Luckily, the company started just as Birthright was getting off the ground.
Encouraging college students to come to Israel was much more feasible, now that they had the opportunity to travel for free.
BIRTHRIGHT and its trip organizers were Upstart’s first clients, and still are its biggest. Gideon Mark, CEO of Birthright, can’t even remember when they started working together, since the partnership fit so well that one can’t imagine functioning without the other. “[Upstart is] headed by two talented professionals who know the trips, they know marketing and they know the target audience,” says Mark.
“This is the triangle that allows them to be so successful.”
As 24,000 participants get ready to come this summer through the Birthright framework and more than 10,000 were put on the waiting list, Eglash and Esses can look back and smile at the early days when they had to practically beg American college students to come on the free 10- day trips.
When Upstart was founded, Birthright had public relations challenges on two fronts. First, the second intifada made visiting a hard sell to Americans. And second, no one could believe that this organization was offering a free trip. Students were waiting to see what strings were attached.
Upstart pioneered the first Birthright ambassador programs, knowing that no one could recruit students better than other students. The company developed the technology behind a computer program that could track referrals and recruitments, rewarding effective ambassadors.
“We wanted to harness the excitement of returnees by getting them to bring their friends,” says Esses.
“That’s the entire proposition and it worked unbelievably: giving alumni a structured and simple way to say thanks by giving them a framework for telling their friends.”
Both Eglash and Esses agree that initiatives like the ambassador program were due in a large part to their business and activism experience. There’s lots of overlap between the two worlds, Eglash explains, like creating messages, creating a brand and campaign strategies to educate, inform and raise awareness.
Because Upstart is located here, it concentrates on partnering with wellknown organizations which have an established network of members or activists. It can then design customized programs or educational campaigns to present a specific aspect of Israel, like a recent interactive slide show for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston highlighting its economic and technological strengths. The hope is that college students can show the slide show to their friends, to give a personal touch to the information presented.
Other clients include Aish International, which partnered with Upstart to launch the Hasbara Fellowships, one of the biggest pro-Israel campus organizations.
Other groups, like campus Hillels, Jewish federations and the Jewish National Fund, have also tapped Upstart’s intimate knowledge of the American college psyche when it comes to Israel advocacy.
FOR UPSTART, the campus is a magical place where future opinions can be molded like nowhere else. “This is a market where they’re very much open to a message,” explains Eglash.
“This is the age demographic in which these opportunities are being offered for the same reason,” adds Esses. “They have the ability to change, to incorporate new things in their life.”
College is the sweet spot for internalizing the pro-Israel message, they say. “If you go too late, it’s a whole different ball game. If you go too early, it’s also not relevant because they can’t make their own decisions,” says Esses. “They are on the front lines of anti-Israel activity. For adults, the most aggressive anti-Israel sentiment is in the newspaper. They can close the newspaper, drink their coffee and go off to work, whatever. But on campuses, you’re dealing with giant rallies where coffins are used to show Palestinian deaths and the so-called Israel Apartheid Week. The anti-Israel forces on campuses are really trying to defame and undermine Israel’s legitimacy in very real and tangible ways. Everywhere else, it’s just a war of ideas and it’s much more palatable because you can’t get away with the things people get away with on campus in a normal community.
People will reject it.”
And their message is certainly working.
Upstart worked with Oranim for many years during which it became one of the largest Birthright trip providers. Two years ago, it started doing marketing and recruitment for the Sachlav trip provider, which went from sending 11 buses per summer in 2008 to 31 buses this summer.
“I found that Michael and Eric are not just really good salesmen,” says Divon Yron, the founder and CEO of Sachlav.
“They have a lot of experience connecting between Jewish values and ideals and expressing those values. They have a lot of common sense and knowledge that they bring to the table; they use it for getting good results with the marketing process.”
Yron also praised the duo’s tenacity, an important trait when it comes to pro-Israel advocacy. “In the Birthright crises of 2008 [when the budget was lower because of the worldwide economic recession], they had just started working with us. I asked them, ‘Are you giving up? No one is promising that Birthright will come back [to past levels soon],’ because the situation with Birthright was really foggy,” Yron says.
“They said, ‘No, we’re not looking for short term, we’re looking for long term.’ They’re very good players for long term, because they cannot do nothing when it comes to Israel.”
The pro-aliya company also tries to hire exclusively new olim to work in its office, located in an old youth group building tucked in Jerusalem’s Nayot neighborhood, next to Sacher Park. It has two or three employees, based on the number of projects, who usually stay for a year, long enough to get some experience and get over the hurdle of finding that first job here.
Future plans include a joint venture with Sachlav to create a long-term MASA program called “Real Life Israel,” a five-month introduction to Israeli society that will kick off this fall.
The volunteer and career development program is the “culmination of our work,” says Eglash. “There’s a silent minority that wants to know what it’s like to live here. There’s a critical mass of people who have been on the Birthright trips and they’re hungry for more.
Birthright gave them an amazing opportunity to see Israel, they’ve been inspired and motivated by it and they want to go a step forward. This trip will allow them to be immersed.”
Other Jewish organizations should look to Birthright and see how deeply coming to Israel affects a Jewish activist, Eglash says. “The number one challenge is to encourage organizations to put travel to Israel at the top of their agendas,” he adds, “because these people will come back inspired and want to give back to the Jewish community.”