Extending a cultural helping hand

America-Israel Cultural Foundation chair Scott Mortman and vice chair Kristina Reiko Cooper (photo credit: AMIT MAHALEL)
America-Israel Cultural Foundation chair Scott Mortman and vice chair Kristina Reiko Cooper
(photo credit: AMIT MAHALEL)
Cultural pursuits the world over are frequently in the firing line when state budgetary cuts are introduced – and Israel is no exception. Despite the vast number of quality artists we continue to churn out, governmental support for creative exploits could do with an incremental upgrade. That’s where nonprofit organizations come in.
The America-Israel Cultural Foundation has been a stalwart of the local arts and culture scene for more than 77 years, providing financial and other forms of support to a roster of artists that reads like a Who’s Who of the country’s entertainment elite.
Consider the names of icons from the classical music domain, including violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman; pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim; internationally renowned classical conductor, pianist, composer and jazz musician Yaron Gottfried; and veteran classical pianist, conductor, educator and TV personality Arie Vardi, and you get some idea of the caliber of the talented artists that have been provided with a much needed AICF helping hand over the years.
Leading lights of other musical spheres, such as singer-songwriters David Broza and Shlomi Shaban, have also benefited from the foundation’s generosity, as have artists Michal Rovner and Sigalit Landau; choreographers Ohad Naharin and Rami Beer; film directors Renen Schorr, Talia Lavi and Tomer Heymann; and actors Mark Ivanir, Keren Mor and Itay Tiran. With so many beneficiaries, one wonders what the Israeli cultural scene would look like without the AICF.
When AICF chair Scott Mortman isn’t volunteering his time with the foundation, he earns a crust as a corporate lawyer.
Both Mortman and vice chair Kristina Reiko Cooper, a businesswoman and internationally renowned cellist, exude boundless enthusiasm for their philanthropic work with the AICF.
“We came on board in early 2016,” says Mortman. “We are in a process of revitalizing the organization.”
We have quite a legacy to live up to, he adds. “The foundation has a very rich history. We are one of the oldest foundations in Israel.
“The [AICF] mission has been consistent for 77 years. It’s to fund excellence in the arts here in Israel. From our point of view, what matters is whether we fund a young musician, dancer, actor, painter or anyone in the arts,” he explains. “The primary criterion is – and we catch them at a relatively early age – that they have the drive and talent to do what they do.
“We don’t care if they are Jewish or Muslim or Christian. We don’t care what that background is. None of that matters. What matters to us is do they have the talent and the drive to be a great artist.”
Naturally, it is not just a matter of an applicant putting out positive vibes.
The foundation chooses its beneficiaries – of whom there have been more than 18,000 to date – with the utmost care.
“We work with professionals that are able to identify those people through our extensive audition process, and we fund them,” says Mortman, adding that the reach of the AICF has extended far and wide over the last three quarters of a century.
“Because we have been around for 77 years, there is probably hardly any top Israeli artist that did not receive funding from the AICF at an early age.”
The latter is one of the primary areas of added value offered by the foundation.
“We meet people [artists] who are at the top of their game who, when they find out that we represent the AICF, the conversation always becomes: ‘When I began my career, the AICF was there to fund me and help me get started.’” Reiko Cooper got her first taste of Israeli musical excellence while she was still stateside.
“I used to hear the name AICF all the time... The best musicians in the world are Israelis,” says Reiko Cooper. “You grew up hearing about people like Perlman and Barenboim and Zukerman and [Latvian-born cellist] Mischa Maisky. For me, what it meant was that if you’re Israeli, you must be a super powerhouse with crazy technique and stage presence.”
Today, through the foundation, Reiko Cooper is in a position to possibly help the next Barenboim or Perlman make it to the international stage.
“When I was asked to be on the board, I was extremely excited,” she recalls. “It seemed like the perfect fit for me. I am passionate to be able to promote something in Israel that rises above politics, and it is something that Israel is so excellent at.”
VARDI CERTAINLY appreciates the help he got back in the day.
“I was given a fellowship for a summer in which I was able to visit some of the most important [classical music] festivals in the United States, like Marlboro [in Vermont] and Aspen [in Colorado]. Those visits really opened my eyes to the world of classical music,” Vardi recalls.
“That was in addition to the scholarships I received as a child. In the year I was at Marlboro, I was able to learn from [feted Bohemian-born pianist] Rudolf Serkin, who was still there,” he says. “Some of the great artists from the 19th century were also around back then. That was a wonderful experience for me.”
Vardi has given back to his benefactors over the years, serving on some of the foundation’s audition panels, judging competitions and also mentoring younger musicians.
“I was involved in the foundation, both as a student and as a teacher,” he says. “I carried on with that when I was, later, director of the Academy of Music of Tel Aviv University, which is now the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music.”
It was in the latter capacity that Vardi contributed to another important aspect of the AICF’s work.
“At the academy, we conducted a great many joint projects with the foundation, which included bringing back young Israeli musicians who went abroad to study,” he says. “We wanted to bring them back to Israel and we offered them teaching positions at the music school.
“There was [renowned pianist] Emanuel Krasovsky, who studied in Tel Aviv and then went to study at the Juilliard School [in New York]. We wanted to bring him to Israel, and the foundation wanted that, and the academy wanted that, and the foundation provided a grant and we managed to get him a position in Tel Aviv, and he is still one of our leading professors. But that is only one example.”
David Broza is one of Israel’s bestknown musical exports. Thirty-five years ago, he was still bubbling under, having contributed to the wildly successful Sixteenth Lamb album, but still a couple of years before his major breakthrough with his 1983 smash hit record “Ha’isha she’iti” (“The Woman with Me”).
AICF support helped him further his music education and hone his craft.
“I got a scholarship that paid for music lessons with [composer, conductor and instrumentalist] Rafi Kadishson,” says Broza. “It is amazing what the foundation has done. With people like [late legendary violinist] Isaac Stern and [the violinist’s wife and arts administrator] Vera Stern, and all those amazing people who saw the potential in Israeli youth to become professional musicians, that is wonderful.”
Broza feels the foundation’s work offers benefits on the global stage, too.
“They have established a relationship of art and music, between Israel and the rest of the world, based on merit and culture and talent – it’s unbelievable,” he says.
Broza also does his best to doff his derby in the right direction by performing in AICF fund-raiser events each year.
Gottfried is also in the upper echelons of the Israeli musical hierarchy, purveying his polished artistry across the globe. The AICF assistance he received as a youngster helped set him on his way to the top in all his various fields of activity.
“I received scholarships from the foundation over many years, as a classical pianist, as a jazz pianist, and also for conducting and for composition,” he says. This organization is really something special.”
The Gottfried-AICF relationship is still strong today, as the conductor- composer-pianist’s classical guitarist son is a current scholarship recipient.
Michal Rovner, now a global name across a slew of artistic disciplines, was an almost complete unknown when she relocated to New York at the age of 30. That all changed when then-AICF artistic director Meira Gra got wind of her talent and kickstarted the process of providing Rovner with invaluable financial support.
With that substantial recognition, Rovner managed to land her first exhibition in the Big Apple, and the rest is history.
“It is so important to provide an artist with support before he becomes famous,” says Rovner. “Seeing the potential is the trick, so that he or she can benefit from the energy of recognition before they decide to devote their entire life to art. That is priceless.”
Currently looking to up its scholarship budget from $2 million to $5m. annually and take on larger-scale longterm projects, the AICF looks set to keep our arts flag flying high and proud across the world for many years to come.