Trying to mend Israel’s fractured society at 68 years old

Co. Lab aims to rediscover social common ground despite the many divides among citizens

Flag of Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Flag of Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In a small building in Jaffa, a group of 18 leaders from all sectors of Israeli society gather to brainstorm and discuss a myriad of ground-breaking social initiatives.
The leaders – CEOs, social activists, a former MK, conservative and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, women, men, Jews and Arabs – represent the real face of country as it celebrates its 68th birthday.
The diverse group has come together as part of Co. Lab – a cutting-edge incubator, developed as a first-of-its-kind signature initiative of the philanthropic UJA-Federation of New York.
Co. Lab, short for “collaborative laboratory,” aims to bring together social leaders from all sectors of society to create social change.
“In recent years, the Federation has been asking itself what is the role of UJA-NY in Israel in the 21st century,” Uri Leventer-Roberts, director of UJA-Federation of New York in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post recently.
UJA-Federation is one of the largest Jewish philanthropic organizations in the world, quietly donating tens of millions of dollars to Israeli charitable causes.
“In the past, it was clear to us that the way to help [Israel] was to physically pave the roads and [build] houses. American Jewish philanthropy helped a new state cope with wars, with immigration... We were a small country with a tiny economy and foreign philanthropy really meant something,” he said.
“Fast forward to 2016 – Israel is a strong country, it’s the Start-Up Nation – we have a government in Israel and it is in charge of building the country and taking care of its poor, and so UJA’s role is not so clear,” he said.
As such, Leventer-Roberts explained, the organization began a process of redefining its vision vis-a-vis Israel.
“The answer we came up with is that our role has changed from building the state to working with Israelis to shape Israeli society so that it will be inclusive and offer opportunities,” he said. “We also want a character of Israeli society that the American Jewish community can relate to – a place where all Jews can call home.
“Co. Lab is the first strategy we are applying to realize this vision for Israeli society that we have developed through a strategic planning process,” he explained.
This is the first time the organization changed its course and developed a project of its own, he said, adding that one of the unique aspects of the program is the collaboration between the American Jewish community and Israel in developing and implementing the initiative.
“UJA-NY is one of the main philanthropic players in Israel. We are very big and very influential – but we also have some modesty and we understand that we don’t have the solution,” he said. “We strongly believe the answers and responses to the challenges facing Israeli society need to come from Israelis themselves.
“The end goal of the program is for the participants to come up with groundbreaking, innovative ideas for projects and initiatives that can bring about social cohesion in Israel,” he said.
Marcia Riklis served as chairwoman of the UJA-NY commission, aptly named Shituf (“collaboration” in Hebrew), which developed the idea for Co. Lab.
“Co. Lab is the conglomeration of many dedicated people – experts both on the lay side and professional side, from different mission legs in the UJA Federation – who worked together over a year-long period in NY to think how we can be impactful on Israeli society in positive ways,” she told the Post.
Riklis explained that the Shituf committee tried to define what some of Israel’s greatest challenges were and where the federation would be able to make a difference.
“The issue of social cohesion was one that we identified slightly before President [Reuven] Rivlin began to speak about it,” she said.
She surmised that the Federation had a deep understanding of this issue due to the work it has done over the years with marginalized sectors in Israeli society.
“We have problems in America, too, but when you see these problems emerging in Israel – a small country – it is worrisome,” she said, “particularly when we see that young American Jews today have different attitudes than older Jews. And when they see trends in radicalization in Israel it pushes them away from the country.”
Riklis, who splits her time between New York and Tel Aviv, echoed Leventer-Roberts’s sentiment that American Jewry must work together with Israel.
“The relationship between the US and Israel, [or] American Jewry and Israel, is itself an evolving relationship – today it is more a partnership,” she said. “It is about our acceptance of a reality that we don’t have the answers for Israeli society. For something to be accepted and to succeed, it has to be championed by Israelis and not necessarily by American Jews.”
This sentiment was put into action with the establishment of two task forces – one American and one Israeli – which narrowed down a pool of more than 100 applicants to the 18 final participants.
The Israeli task force was headed by businessman and philanthropist Oded Gera, who serves as vice chairman of Rothschild Israel, and included an equally diverse group of five Israeli leaders.
The American task force was headed by Co. Lab chairwoman Susan Lax.
“This week is a hard week for all who live in Israel – Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day], Yom Hazikaron [Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars] and Yom Ha’atzma’ut [Independence Day]... It is mixed with so many emotions,” she told the Post recently.
“It is time to remember what could be and what should be. So many people fought for that, and I don’t mean through wars, but through their beliefs.”
Lax said she sees Israel as a melting pot with “so many meanings for so many people.”
“There is a very common ground for all those who choose to live in Israeli society, and that is their love for life,” she said. “I am a strong believer that when there are problems, when there is a common love there is always a place to find to be together.”
Because of the political situation in the country, however, she said the common ground gets lost, “shadowed over by rain and clouds as opposed to people seeing the sun and the beauty that each person has.”
“Co. Lab has offered this ability to each of our fellows – to be able to see that each has a light they didn’t know existed before.
“They are leaders, they are activists, they have belief and faith in the people of Israel and they want to find the common ground, because when there is common ground you can move forward,” she said, adding that she has been amazed by the dedication and devotion of the participants in Co. Lab and the process they have undergone since beginning the endeavor in January.
“One of the beautiful things of Co. Lab is the process, the changes that are being made all year long, the connection between all these sectors, that they are talking to one another – that would’ve never happened,” she said.
The Co. Lab chairwoman said that while the initiative tries to promote social cohesion, the participants themselves are the embodiment of this ideal.
“To see one of the participants, a haredi woman who had recently given birth, and a Christian Arab who says ‘I’ll hold your baby’ so that she can participate in a discussion together with a conservative rabbi, and there is no question – this is truly amazing” she recalled.
“We make a difference in one moment and the ripple effect can go on for years.
Here we have a lot of differences in many moments and the effects have begun.”
Lax has served as an integral part of the Co. Lab initiative, closely accompanying the fellows together with attorney Roi Mekler, the head director of Co. Lab.
“Co. Lab promotes breakthroughs and collaborations in society. It brings people who are bound by a common cause, who would otherwise not meet, and lets them work together and think how they can build bridges between Israeli communities who are so disconnected these days,” said Mekler.
“When a haredi woman joins process with the head of the LGBT in Israel,” he added, “a new language can be born which is a starting point for a paradigm shift for the way we speak, the way we think, and ultimately the way we act.”
Co. Lab, a 180-day process, was modeled after Google’s X innovation model and adapted to the social field, Mekler explained.
As part of the initiative, fellows began with a three-day immersion event in Ein Gedi, on the shores of the Dead Sea, where they first got to know one another.
This introduction was followed by an exploration phase, in which the fellows hosted each other in their home communities, introducing one another to the realities and challenges they face.
Ultimately, the fellows split into small teams and began brainstorming and developing collaborative initiatives to address the challenges of Israeli society. They also were introduced to cutting-edge innovative methodologies and top experts in innovation.
“Some of the fellows come from government or municipalities and some are in charge of large-scale budgets in the social fields, so that once they have the right ideas and the right partners we will provide them with the best nurturing greenhouse terms they could hope for, and we will also help and advise them and give them the possibility for R&D [research and development] to bring these initiatives to real life,” he explained.
Mekler stressed that the program is not a leadership program, because all the participants are already proven leaders in their respective fields.
“This is the first time we are taking fellows who are well beyond fellowship programs, and we want to give them a chance to create together with other senior leaders. The only way to talk the talk is to walk the walk,” he said.
In June, the fellows will fly to New York, where they will present their initiatives to the federation and have the chance to implement their ideas.
“Each fellow brought his organizational partner, his boss, his co-worker, so that after Co. Lab ends they will be able to help initiate these initiatives regardless of whether they get funding from UJA,” he said. “Co.
Lab spans 180 days, but it is all about the 181st day, the day after.”
Sigal Peretz-Yahalomi, a Co. Lab fellow and CEO of AKIM Israel, an organization that assists the intellectually disabled, told the Post that Co. Lab embodied the ethos of her organization that “an inclusive community is a strong community.”
“At AKIM, we work with all sectors of society – Arabs, Muslims, Druse, Beduin, Jews, both secular and religious. We see an island of tranquility because everyone joins together to care for children with intellectual disabilities and we don’t let the problems seep in,” she said.
Co. Lab, she said, has enabled her to expand the “island of tranquility” and apply it to society at large.
“We are catching the bull by the horns and trying to take care of the problem and strengthen social cohesion,” she said.
As part of her participation, Peretz-Yahalomi teamed up with former MK Pnina Tamanu-Shata, a leader in the Ethiopian community and Conservative Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, to develop an initiative to establish patrols for human dignity.
“We want to choose three cities that are very diverse, and in each city – together with its leadership, the mayor, community centers, welfare departments and NGOs – establish a patrol that will be comprised of people from all the groups in the city,” she explained.
“The patrol groups will undergo training, receive legal counsel, PR and will act toward the prevention of exclusion and racism,” she said, adding that she believes this will lead people to understand that their municipality is promoting a policy of inclusion that, in turn, can help create a more inclusive public dialogue.
“It is very challenging. Even though we all know that there are tears in Israeli society it will be very difficult to recruit people to participate,” she said.
Peretz-Yahalomi added that she was very grateful to the UJA-NY Federation for “see[ing] the difficulties in Israeli society and want[ing] to address them.”
“It is not an easy undertaking,” she said.
“The UJA understands that for Israel to continue to be a strong, moral society which is a leader, we must act to address the issues of social cohesion.”