Changing of the guard

Ever the diplomat, former ambassador Mark Sofer is glowing in his praise for the Jerusalem Foundation, and is clearly looking forward to his new position as president.

Mark Sofer 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mark Sofer 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It‘s not something one can see or hear in the streets of Jerusalem, but there is no question that it is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. After 45 years at the head of one of the most prestigious institutions created in this city, the Jerusalem Foundation, its founder and president Ruth Cheshin is handing over the administrative reins to another person of another generation.
Last week, former ambassador to India Mark Sofer slipped into Cheshin’s position. Sofer, 57, married and the father of three daughters, was born in England and comes from a religious background. He and his family maintain the tradition, although he is careful not to wave it as a banner.
The changing of the guard in a foundation, prestigious though it may be, would not ordinarily be treated with such dramatic fanfare. But the Jerusalem Foundation is not just any philanthropic organization. It would not be an exaggeration to say that without it, Jerusalem would be a very different city, and not for the better. Take the parks, for example. Imagine the city without Liberty Bell Park or the Lion’s Fountain Park facing the Old City walls. Or without the Jerusalem Theater, the Khan Theater, the Train Theater – the list goes on. Try to imagine this city without education projects that touch all residents – Jews, Arabs, religious, secular, new olim, veterans. Not to mention health programs, community centers and cultural projects.
Officially a tool to help the municipality enhance and expand its capacity to make residents’ lives better, the Jerusalem Foundation was the brainchild of legendary mayor Teddy Kollek. Although the JF is not the only foundation that works in conjunction with a major city, the breadth and impact of its activities exceed those of any other foundation of its kind.
Into this legend comes Sofer, a master of diplomacy armed with a warm smile and extensive knowledge of the outside world. Besides their deep love and concern for the city, the two are very different – in age, origin, experience and probably also in style. The expectations of Sofer are great. “He now has a jewel in his hands,” said a veteran of the foundation, intimating that jewels must be handled not only with care but also with professional expertise.
In the corridors of the JF, one can feel the emotion that naturally accompanies such a major change, but apparently Sofer has already won over many of the employees. His warm personality evidently helps a lot, besides the simple fact that everyone knows that what is involved is far more important than their own positions.
“There is a bit of apprehension,” says the veteran who is still very close to the foundation staff, “but there is a good feeling.”
Sofer hasn’t changed the decor of the office he inherited. Perhaps that is his way of expressing a bit of modesty, though he indicates that he hasn’t had time to arrange the room to his taste. Diplomatic skills are perhaps the new language.
Unknown to most Israelis, besides members of the Foreign Ministry, despite his impressive list of accomplishments and positions as a diplomat, Sofer became an overnight celebrity during the terror attack in Mumbai in November 2008 that resulted in dozens of casualties, among them five Jews and Israelis. Sofer dealt with the situation in a way that colleagues and journalists described as remarkably professional and human. He attended to Jewish tourists (though officially, he was not responsible for anyone who is not an Israeli citizens), took care of all the logistics required in returning the corpses of the victims to Israel and dealt with the media in India.
One of the facets that emerged from this tragedy was the gentle and intelligent way he treated the relatives of the two Satmar Hassidim who were killed in the attack, a sect that does not recognize the Zionist state. Sofer’s comportment in this situation has raised the question of whether in his new position he might use those skills in the city where haredim, some of whom are anti-Zionist, are nevertheless residents who might donate to some of the foundation’s projects.
This a very complex city to deal with. Do you have a clear idea of what you’d like to do and where you’d like to put the emphasis?
I don’t think that the JF can solve the problems of Jerusalem, so I think that what we need to do is work on issues that will tackle the problems of this city and bring about a solution. Among these are, of course, the major thrusts the JF deals with and about which I’m very excited: building the community, education, culture and coexistence. None of them exists in a vacuum; they each contribute to a greater whole. I met myriads of people before I officially took on the job who feel exactly the same way. I don’t think that one needs to change the thrusts; what one needs to do is to keep adding to each of those four pillars.
Has the JF had problems fund-raising as a result of the global economic crisis?
No, not if you look at the actual income. As a matter of fact, the opposite is the case. Despite the downturn in the international community, the JF continues to raise the same amounts of money. I think that the challenge is not to deal with erosion or a downturn but how to increase. How to make the pie bigger, not how to continue to cut more pieces of the pie. This is really the challenge. I think the JF has two major things going for it, both coming from the words ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘foundation.’ I think that the word ‘Jerusalem’ in the international community – not just the Jewish community – is everything. And the JF to a large extent.
Jerusalem is a symbol of conflict today. How does that affect work of the JF?
Yes, it is. And so is Israel as a whole. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that Jerusalem is still at the center of the heart, mind and soul of people. And precisely because it’s in the center of the Middle East issues, it gives it additional sympathies in the areas of support for the four pillars I just mentioned.
The Jerusalem Foundation has an excellent reputation within the international community. It’s the major foundation – not only in Jerusalem. I don’t think there’s any other institution like it; certainly not in Israel. There’s no such institution in the whole world, to be honest with you. When I look around at other cities of the world, I can’t find an institution of this kind dealing with a city of such complexity, being able to contribute to every walk of life, to everyone in the city all the time. It’s unique in a way. So I think that those two together make a brand which is, frankly, unbeatable, and that’s why I’m not so worried. Well, I hope I shouldn’t be worried. It’s not an easy time, but I can’t foresee a situation when it becomes untenable. I think our real challenge is how to enlarge the pie, how to increase the income, because there are so many projects that we’d like to bring to fruition, so many things we would like to do.
What new projects do you have in mind?
I think it would be a bit superfluous of me at this time – I’ve been in the position less than a week – and I think it would be condescending and arrogant, and I try not to be an arrogant person and say, ‘You know, this is a good project, this is not so good,’ you know – to start. I’m not sure that would be good. But the coexistence part, like the Intercultural Center on Mount Zion, the Hasadna project [children from privileged and challenged backgrounds who play music together] they were in London just now and appeared in three concerts, and the BBC taped a live performance – the BBC! It’s quite interesting that they would do that. It’s good not just for the Hasadna or the JF, it’s actually good for the State of Israel, of which we are all proud.
The scholarships we give, or think of the cultural events – you can barely find one single cultural event in Jerusalem that is not supported by the JF. The intense involvement of the JF is everywhere. It’s not a problem, it’s a challenge. Is it easy? Well, you know, if somebody could tell me what in life was easy, I’d take that job tomorrow. But I don’t think that job exists. (A) it would be boring, (B) it’s nonexistent, and (C) the contribution of anything that’s easy is really not something that could engender any type of creative movement.
Since you assumed the position, have you walked around Jerusalem and thought, ‘Oh, that could be a nice thing to do here or there…'?
Yes, I absolutely begin to think that way, and it’s a change in my thinking. As a human being, as a citizen, as a resident here, certainly in this new position. So the answer is yes. But I think that it’s very easy to come up with things that need to be done. You can come up with 50 ideas a day, but it has to be done realistically, professionally, with the mind on what we can really do in conjunction with other institutions here or other bodies – the municipality, the needs of the population. So one shouldn’t shoot from the hip.
How do you see the cooperation with the municipality while preserving the JF’s independence?
I’m not worried at all because all the projects are for the good of the city.
But what happens if the mayor sees things differently, has another order of priorities, for example?
So we discuss it. We discuss these ideas on a professional level. We’re doing that almost on a daily basis, looking at the projects, examining what can fit into his agenda, which ones fit into our agenda. The agendas are not identical because it’s clear we’re not the same organization. I think everybody understands that – the professional staff too, not just the mayor. We work closely with the cultural staff. Things are going just as they should.
Do you feel that you and the mayor could be partners?
Yes, absolutely. There’s no reason why the good of the city would make it different.
But things haven’t always been so simple, as you must be well aware.
You don’t have to remind me, but I say there’s absolutely no reason for it. It happened in the past, but that’s not the situation today. Just look around at any street in Jerusalem and you will see the fingerprint of the JF. Just open any newspaper and look at what’s on this weekend and next week, and you’ll see the JF logo on cultural events taking place. What can be better? I’m not trying to do an advertisement here, it’s a fact of life.
How do you sell Jerusalem to the JF donors abroad?
Through projects. Everybody wants Jerusalem to be a thriving city, everybody! Nobody wants Jerusalem to be a city of conflict. When you approach a potential donor with a project and you add the name Jerusalem, it works. Not only among Jewish communities. In Europe, much of the support to the JF comes from non-Jews.
In Europe?
In Europe, yes. I’m not saying the majority, I’m saying much. It’s the brand JF and it’s the brand Jerusalem. It is indeed surprising, but yes.
And what about local donors, from Israel?
It’s growing. The culture of philanthropy among Israelis is growing very slowly, we recognize that.
Are you planning to develop it?
Absolutely. Very much. This is one of my top priorities. Israel today is a member of the OECD; it’s not a developing country anymore. In European terms it’s way above average, and there is no reason at all to go to wealthy communities in Europe while the wealthy community in Israel feels that this is not their concern. It is a new culture here because, let’s face it, 30 or 40 years ago Israel was a developing country. But that’s no longer the case, so the Israel-based philanthropy is going to be a major thrust.