New FIDF CEO: The more you know us, the more you’ll want to join us

Steven Weil enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a prominent educator, pulpit rabbi, and, most recently, Senior Managing Director of the Orthodox Union before joining FIDF in September.

Steven Weil, FIDF’s National Director and CEO. (photo credit: MINT MEDIA)
Steven Weil, FIDF’s National Director and CEO.
(photo credit: MINT MEDIA)
"I spent the past thirty years trying to build American Jewry," says Steven Weil. "Now, I have the opportunity to have a small – but significant - hand in building the future of Israeli society." Weil, the newly appointed National Director and Chief Executive Officer of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a prominent educator, pulpit rabbi, and, most recently, Senior Managing Director of the Orthodox Union before joining FIDF in September. 
The response to COVID-19 by the IDF demonstrates its centrality within the Israeli civilian population. Photo Credit: IDF SpokespersonThe response to COVID-19 by the IDF demonstrates its centrality within the Israeli civilian population. Photo Credit: IDF Spokesperson
Articulate, polite, and self-effacing, Weil sees similarities between the outreach that he performed in his previous positions and the goals that he has set for himself in his new post at FIDF. "At the Orthodox Union," he notes, "a great deal of what we did was engaging American Jewry, and the majority of those under the age of 50 are unaffiliated Jews. One of my goals now for FIDF going forward is to expand our core base and connect all of American Jewry – no matter their background, no matter where they are coming from politically, religiously, or otherwise – to the future of Israel through the lives of the soldiers."

FIDF is a non-political, non-military organization whose goal is to provide sustainable solutions to all of Israel's soldiers through social, educational, financial, cultural, and recreational programs and facilities. It was established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors and operates 25 regional offices in the United States and Panama, with headquarters in New York City. It is the single organization authorized to represent the IDF soldiers across the United States and Panama, as designated by Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gadi Eizenkot, IDF Chief of the General Staff, in March 2017, and again by Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, IDF Chief of the General Staff, in February 2019. Today, the organization assists more than 118,000 soldiers each year. 

Weil wants to broaden the appeal of FIDF beyond the older generation that remembers the Six-Day War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel's very existence was at stake, to a new generation of American Jews, who take the existence of a State of Israel as a given. "Most American Jews are coming from a mindset of social justice and don’t necessarily have a positive affiliation with the military in general," he notes. The activities that FIDF supports within the IDF, says Weil, will resonate with the younger generation as these programs are more closely aligned with social justice than military activities.

"If the perception is that we are providing guns and combat boots, then that’s false, and clearly does not speak to many people. However, if you understand that FIDF is an institution that provides a unification platform for people from diverse backgrounds, that we help the IDF be the ultimate equalizer, then I’m sure you’ll want to join our movement," he adds.
The IDF is the ultimate equalizer in Israeli society. To that end, FIDF’s programs provide life-changing opportunities to soldiers of all backgrounds. Photo Credit: IDF SpokespersonThe IDF is the ultimate equalizer in Israeli society. To that end, FIDF’s programs provide life-changing opportunities to soldiers of all backgrounds. Photo Credit: IDF Spokesperson


Weil points with pride to a number of FIDF programs that are helping to transform IDF soldiers in a positive and meaningful way. FIDF's IMPACT Scholarship program is tailored for former combat soldiers who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and enables them to achieve their dreams of higher education. The program also provides funds to cover soldiers' living expenses while they study and gives them the unique benefit of direct contact with their FIDF sponsors.
Since the program's founding in 2002, FIDF has sponsored students from 66 countries of origin, studying at over 80 academic institutions in Israel. Over 92% of IMPACT recipients graduate successfully, compared to the Israeli national average of 70-81% graduation rate. With the success of the program, some 16,130 students and alumni are represented in nearly every field, and dozens are now donors themselves.

"We've provided the opportunity for them, through the army, to transcend the cycle of poverty," says Weil. "And, we've provided for them the opportunity post-service, not only to give to Israel and the Jewish people three years of military service, but to give to Israel and the Jewish people for the next 60 years of their lives."

Weil cites two other educational programs that FIDF sponsors as examples of the groundbreaking work that the organization is doing on behalf of IDF soldiers and their communities. One, called the ‘Formal Education’ program, allows soldiers who were previously unable to attain 12 years of education or a high school degree to pursue an educational equivalent while performing military service. FIDF seeks to increase opportunities for these soldiers to reenter civilian life on an even footing with their peers. In 2015, FIDF added the "Bagrut" Matriculation Certificate Course to the Formal Education program, which prepares soldiers for their high school matriculation exams, a prerequisite for higher education in Israel. 

A second initiative entitled ‘Project Overcome’ assists young Israeli citizens who struggle with emotional problems, addictions, low self-esteem, or lack of ambition, often exacerbated by poverty and criminal backgrounds. These youths were traditionally not considered fit for service in the IDF and had few opportunities to gain successful employment. Through Project Overcome, at-risk youth can reform their behavior and gain tools and life skills relevant for army service and as professionals in the civilian market. The program, which takes place during the course of their IDF service, offers them a clean slate, a chance to discover exciting new capabilities in themselves, and a path to change their future. "This program gives them the opportunity to have self-worth and self-dignity," says Weil. He adds that many soldiers who have been in the program become officers and mentors to other soldiers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. 
Beyond protecting the country’s borders, IDF soldiers are also working closely with the civilian population and diverse communities in Israel. Photo Credit: IDF SpokespersonBeyond protecting the country’s borders, IDF soldiers are also working closely with the civilian population and diverse communities in Israel. Photo Credit: IDF Spokesperson

FIDF assists soldiers in numerous ways – through education, financial assistance, and preparation for life after the army. Weil lights up when speaking about FIDF's 'Dignity' program that provides soldiers in-need and their families with essential items such as furniture, electrical appliances, and other living necessities. For those with severe financial difficulties, FIDF provides monetary assistance through special grants and vouchers. He explains that 'Dignity' is much more than just a name –soldiers with financial hardships are provided with assistance, discreetly, and privately. "Until now," says Weil, "we have taken care of 8,000 soldiers every year, who are under the poverty line. This year, the army has asked us to support more than 29,000 soldiers in-need. It's a huge responsibility. Soldiers are provided with gift card vouchers for using at supermarkets. When they return home from the army for weekends, not only are they not a burden on their family, but they end up being able to buy food and supplies for the family."

FIDF's Witnesses in Uniform program, through visits to the sites of death camps in Poland with delegations comprised of career officers and commanders, reserve soldiers, family members of fallen soldiers, and Holocaust survivors, offers soldiers a first-hand look at the horrors of the Holocaust, providing them with a deeper understanding of their Jewish identity and purpose.

FIDF also assists wounded soldiers through various platforms, and supports widows, orphans, and other family members of fallen IDF soldiers with camps in the US, retreats in Israel, and major life-cycle celebrations.
FIDF has centered many of its activities around the growing population of Lone Soldiers, with about 3,500 of them coming from 70 countries. FIDF provides them with housing, social gatherings, financial assistance, fun days, 24/7 call center, and flights home to visit their families.  

Steven Weil is confident that his message of providing transformative opportunities to build the future of Israel and the Jewish people will resonate with Jews throughout the United States. In the coming months, he plans to expand the FIDF message to philanthropic foundations that support Israel, extend the support of existing donors to the next generation, and make sure that FIDF's work becomes a major part of the conversation of American Jewry. The IDF, says Weil, is the great unifier of Jews from five continents, 70 countries, and multiple cultures and perspectives. "We are funding that opportunity to give the IDF the role of the great unifier within world Jewry."

Weil's background makes him uniquely qualified to be a unifier of support for Israel. His family was in the cattle business in Germany for hundreds of years, and his parents escaped from the Nazis to the United States in 1939.  They sought to remain in the livestock business and purchased a farm 50 miles from Buffalo, NY, where his father raised crops and bought and sold livestock. Weil's father, while visiting his customers – most of whom could quote Isaiah by heart – would convince them to invest in Israel bonds, offering them an opportunity to play a role in building the dream of Zionism. "I was a little kid sitting in the truck,” he recalls. ״We would deliver the Israel bonds, and he connected all these people to Israel. It made a huge impact on me growing up.”

Just as decades ago, Weil's father encouraged and promoted support for the fledgling country of Israel, Steven Weil relishes the opportunity, as the new head of FIDF, to create solutions that will transform Israeli society and the future of the Jewish people, one soldier at a time.