No armchair politician

When he moved here, Jay Shultz was disturbed by the lack of Anglo-friendly events in Tel Aviv and decided to take action. He initiated a number of projects, and today, with a following of thousands, hopes to add cosmopolitan flair to the city.

Jay Shultz with former CIA director James Woolsey 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jay Shultz with former CIA director James Woolsey 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s easy to understand why Jay Shultz has no need for Facebook.
Watching him work the room at the Tel Aviv International Salon, an event series he organizes, it’s clear that online social media can add little to his ingrained networking skills.
He greets members of the mostly international, Anglo crowd of 20- and 30- somethings with an amiable “Nice to see you.” When it’s time to introduce the speaker, former CIA director James Woolsey, Shultz exhibits no nerves whatsoever; one would think he was introducing his kid sister at a school show-and-tell.
Perhaps his laid-back attitude comes from experience rubbing elbows with the likes of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and the EU ambassador to Israel – all of whom have spoken in his previous salons. More likely, the self-styled mayor of Tel Aviv’s young international community just feels at home in the world he’s created.
The Tel Aviv Internationals Salon – which draws the city’s young, intellectual crowd to hear a speaker of interest every six weeks or so – is one of several projects the 35-year-old Shultz, a New Jersey- born immigrant from New York City, has initiated since he moved here nearly six years ago.
“Tel Aviv is the most desirable place in Israel for international, secular Jews,” he says. Yet, when he arrived, “there was nothing here for the young, international community.”
That’s one reason, he says, that most new olim – including 25 of his closest friends – leave within five years of arriving.
PARTICULARLY TROUBLING to Shultz was the notion that notoriously secular Tel Aviv had no place for religion, a challenge for Jews raised abroad who foster both strong religious identity and cosmopolitan leanings. So he decided to take action.
“There are two kinds of people – people who see a problem and whine, and people who do something about it,” he says. Wanting to prove that there was Jewish life outside Jerusalem, he took his weekly poker night email list and used it as the basis for his first project: White City Shabbat.
At first, White City Shabbat simply gathered groups for large Shabbat dinners, using free synagogue spaces and inexpensive catering to provide an accessible, enjoyable Shabbat experience.
But a Shultz-organized Shabbat meal would not be enough to change the city’s culture, so he broadened his scope and created an online forum: On the White City Shabbat website, people looking to host Shabbat dinners could connect with people looking to attend them.
“It’s a JDate for eating on Shabbat,” he says, one that can involve the whole community.
Next came the Tel Aviv Arts Council.
Having majored in art history and worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before going on to law school, he wanted to make Tel Aviv’s thriving arts scene accessible to the international crowd, which might have trouble finding inroads to it.
“In New York, it is normal to have events of substance and culture,” he says; shouldn’t it be in Tel Aviv as well? Whereas the Salon features political speakers, the Arts Council features museum nights, dance performances and design presentations.
Impressively, he puts all of these events together without sponsorship or funding.
“The biggest factors that stop people doing things are waiting for funding and waiting for permission,” he says. Instead of searching for a patron, he continues, why not just charge a small fee at the door and get some organizations with a shared mission to donate space? According to Shultz, there are some 200 synagogues in Tel Aviv that would love to find a way to get hundreds of young people through their doors.
AT THE heart of all his projects lies his Zionist ideology.
“I think every Jew in the world should be living here yesterday,” he says, adding that intermarriage rates in the Diaspora make Jewish life there “a sinking ship.” It should be easy for Jews from all over the world to come to Israel – and stay. He scoffs at the notion that olim need to integrate or strive to become “fully Israeli.” Instead, he wants to lower the bar for having a good life here, and help olim remain in the country.
As an example, he offers his grandparents: Holocaust survivors who still speak Yiddish despite having lived most of their lives in the US. Their children and grandchildren are fully American.
Likewise, he says, as long as you’re in Israel, your kids will be Israeli through and through; “rushing to become Israeli is not what’s needed to make you stay here.”
That’s also why he’s focusing his efforts on Tel Aviv. Shultz likes to tell the story of King Solomon importing Lebanese cedar trees, to be used in the foundation of the First Temple, through the port in Jaffa. In that light, Tel Aviv has always been the entry point for Zionist fulfillment.
“The Third Temple’s foundations will come from Tel Aviv,” he says earnestly.
The success of his events demonstrates how much demand exists for such forums among the international Tel Aviv crowd. With over 10,000 people on the email list, Salon events usually sell out within 12 hours. That’s a necessary evil for someone who wants to keep events somewhat intimate, accessible, and conducive to social networking. The latter is particularly important; if people find a good job – or a significant other – at a Tel Aviv International event, they are far more likely to stick around for the long haul.
Shultz says he hopes others take the initiative to create similar programs in order to fulfill the needs of the city’s young international crowd; he’s even willing to let organizers use his expansive list, as long as their events are nonprofit, not parties and amenable to that community’s needs.
“Israel is our native habitat,” he says. “If you put a Jew on the cover of National Geographic, this is where they would be pictured living.”
Thanks to his efforts, that natural habitat has a little more cosmopolitan flair, making life in the Israeli wild a little less nasty, brutish and short.
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