The bang behind the bucks

"Canadians are used to talking about 'frontiers' and we can understand very well how in Israel the 'periphery' is very much a frontier," says Sokolsky.

renewable energy 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
renewable energy 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The term periphery is a difficult concept for Canadians to grasp,” says Ted Sokolsky, the dashing president of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. “On the other hand, Canadians are used to talking about ‘frontiers’ and we can understand very well how in Israel the ‘periphery’ is very much a frontier – in more ways than one.”
Sokolsky was explaining how the federation has succeeded in convincing not only the Toronto Jewish community, but Israeli partners to buy into the plethora of projects it funds in Israel.
In fact, according to Sokolsky, one of the main reasons the federation has been so successful in implementing projects is through its ability to find compatible partners.
“The bigger component is when you put $1 million into a project and raise two more million with leveraging, and it turns into a $100 million program through either the government or industry. And that’s what we’re trying to focus on today,” he said.
“Whether it’s through the Israeli government, organizations in the country or private philanthropists, we’ve been able to leverage the money we put into projects and get a much better bang for our buck in terms of what you’re doing.”
THAT BANG is being felt throughout Israel in ways that many of those being affected aren’t even aware of. Working through the Magbit Canada office in Jerusalem, the federation identifies areas in which its involvement can make a tangible difference in the lives of the community.
For example, proceeds from this year’s Walk with Israel are earmarked toward programs for Ethiopian immigrants in Bat Yam, the home of the fastest-growing Ethiopian community in the country, with more than 650 families, 30 percent of whom arrived within the last three years.
After several years of funding a successful program for the Ethiopian community in the Rehovot neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, the federation has initiated similar programs in Bat Yam. The Youth Futures program employs professionally-trained “trustees” to serve as big brothers and liaisons between home, school and social services for children. The Mirchav-Spaces program, in partnership with the Rashi Foundation, identifies and monitors the needs of 230 children, and provides a slew of other services aimed at giving the next generation of Ethiopian Israelis a fighting chance.
Last month, the federation dedicated the first student dormitories on the campus of the Eilat branch of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. They were built at a cost of $4.5 million, including an initial $2.3 million grant from the federation, which is twinned with the Eilat region through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program. Additional funding was provided by the Rashi Foundation, Ben-Gurion University and the Eilat Municipality.
“The dormitory project is based on a very ambitious objective of transforming the region from one which is uniformly focused and dependent on tourism into a region that is highlighted by higher education and renewable energy innovation,” said Howard English, director of strategic communications.
“So when you think about it, it’s actually a startlingly ambitious goal – to take an area which is so strongly associated with tourism and low-paying jobs and to try to transform it. Over the past five years or so, we’ve been working steadily toward those twin objectives.
“In terms of higher education, we defined it very broadly, not just as a BGU campus in Eilat, but as improving the quality of education in the public school system. The rate of matriculation had been relatively low and the number of kids who went to university was low. So we work in partnership with the municipality and the Education Ministry on measures to improve the quality of education.”
The federation has also introduced work/study programs which allow young people to work in the tourism industry and attend university at the same time – with the cooperation of the tourism and hotel industry, as well as BGU. And another program enables high-school seniors to attend university once a week.
“I talked to many of these kids when I was there a couple of years ago, and they said things to me that you would never hear in Canada – like ‘my mother is so proud of me’ – they would never have dreamed that their daughter or son would be at attending a university. The self-esteem gained by making the university so accessible to high-school kids in Eilat was heartwarming and palpable,” English said.
IN THE same geographical area, the federation has committed funds over the last three years to develop the Hevel Eilot region as a leader in the field of renewable energy.
Funding for the Renewable Energy Project has supported research and development at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the first renewable energy faculty in Israel where students can obtain a master’s degree in the field. The renewable energy initiative also extends to educational programming in high schools and local communities, the goal being to nurture a thriving industry for residents.
“It’s been a great success, and today you’ve got government involvement in building power plants in that area, people like Siemens making major investments in the area, you’ve got the International Conference for Renewable Energy, a conference that we helped fund initially – it’s basically self-supporting today and a profit maker for the city,” said Brian Schachter, chairman of the federation’s overseas committee.
Udi Gat, chairman of the Eilot Regional Council, praised the Toronto Jewish community for being the first to believe in the region and its potential with renewable energy.
“Renewable energy will generate job opportunities and prosperity forthe residents and make us leaders in the global effort to sustain ourplanet. All of these factors will contribute to establishing the regionas the Silicon Valley of renewable energy,” he said.
According to federation chairman Alan Winer, the way the federation hasmaneuvered within these various projects to bring in community partnersis helping to change the way philanthropy for Israel is perceived.
“I think our relationship historically, between the Diaspora communityand Israel, has been more like a poor cousin type of relationship,” hesaid. “And I think it’s developed a lot more into partnerships, intohelping disadvantaged people in Israel, and in a lot of our projectsnow, whether they be in Bat Yam or Eilat, we really partner up.”
Gissin agreed that the federation has been especially adept at findingthe right projects in which to invest and promote. “There’s a realunderstanding here of the strengths and weaknesses of Israeli society.The true partnership is the development of more than the traditionalmodel of philanthropy; it’s a real two-sided relationship,” he said.
Members of the overseas committee of the federation travel to Israel anumber of times a year to monitor the various projects and, accordingto Winer, roll up their sleeves to volunteer.
“I went on one of these ‘holiday’ trips – and you’re working literally14-16 hours a day – and you’re going down and meeting your partners andmaking a difference in lives,” Winer said. “When you meet with thepeople in Bat Yam for example, or go to the Eilot region and visit someof the projects in the schools, and you see it really makes adifference in peoples’ lives. Unlike here in Toronto, where the peoplebenefiting from social services don’t really come out and talk to you,there they’ll bring out the parents and the kids who are impacted andyou see firsthand how lives are being changed. It’s really rewarding.
“Here, if I talk to an agency we’re funding, they’ll always talk abouthow much more they need. In Israel, they’re so appreciative of what wedo. It’s almost like appreciating what we’ve done and not what therestill remains to do. It’s gratifying to go there, because you see realappreciation for every effort you make.”
The approach that the federation takes with its projects is similar tothe way the founding fathers of the country developed theinfrastructure, claimed Schachter.
“The two big picture concepts in our approach involve vision andexpanded partnerships. What we were doing in the past was meetingimmediate needs. We would go to the Eilat area and we would receivepresentations on its immediate needs and we’d agree and help to fix theimmediate needs,” he said.
“But where was the vision, the big idea? In a sense this new approachwas very Israeli. We now go into an area with an approach that’s likethe foundation on which Israel was built and continues to thrive –which is to think as big as you possibly can – to think of everythingthat could be possible and then design the mechanism to achieve it.”
The end result, according to Sarah Mali, director of Israel engagement at the federation, is an expanded sense of community.
“That’s the added value of what we do behind the dollars – one of realconversation and dialogue, encouraging community,” she said, referringto another project, the current upgrading of the emergency roomfacilities at Eilat’s Josephthal Hospital.
Neglected and unprepared to fill the community’s growing needs, theemergency room comprises only eight stations in a single hall separatedby curtains. Women giving birth can find themselves next to patientswith contagious diseases. Through the federation’s involvement,construction is now under way to expand the emergency room by 500% andintroduce sorely needed state of the art equipment.
“We got involved with both the government and the Clalit Health Fundand leveraged our offer of first funding into building a new emergencydepartment in Eilat,” said Mali.
According to Schachter, it’s all about partnership and involvement.
“Instead of saying, ‘Here’s some money and I’m going to tell you whatyou’re going to do with it.’ we really work very differently,” he said.“We’re sitting around a round table and we discuss, ‘How do we helpyou, how do you help us, how do we integrate this, how do we createsomething.’ When we come and sit with mayors or other leaders of thecommunity, it’s so unbelievable when you hear them talking as a ‘we.’”   
The writer was a guest of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.