‘We need to work together for the benefit of all’

Philanthropist Raya Strauss Bendror’s newest charitable endeavor aims to increase tourism in the Western Galilee.

Raya Strauss (photo credit: Courtesy)
Raya Strauss
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘We need a vision to survive,” says Raya Strauss Bendror.
“For me, being a Zionist in Israel today means striving to perform exceptionally.”
Strauss Bendror, former co-owner of Strauss-Elite Group, a billion-dollar international food company, contends that Israel must close the gap with the rest of the developed world.
To accomplish this ambitious vision, she says, Israel must leverage “bottomup” processes, mobilize historically excluded segments of the population like the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs, and exploit the resources of the international “Jewish network” for Israel’s development.
Nowadays she devotes most of her time to philanthropy, with ties to a range of organizations, including the Israel Friends of Ben-Gurion University, the Beit Shanti Foundation for homeless youth and the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot, among others.
One of the initiatives she endorses is the Israel 15 Vision, promoted by the Reut Institute – a policy group that seeks to provide strategic support to the government. Israel 15 Vision calls for Israel to become one of the 15 leading countries in terms of quality of life within 15 years.
Last April, as part of the Israel 15 Vision, Strauss Bendror launched an Internet-based initiative in the Western Galilee with the aim of increasing the volume of tourism in the region. The nonprofit initiative, Ozrot Hagalil (Galilee Treasures), focuses on helping local entrepreneurs succeed, grow and bring in more local and foreign tourists, thus promoting economic growth in the region.
The project, which took four years and millions of shekels to launch, is only the most recent of her philanthropic endeavors.
“Most of my time is dedicated to the philanthropic work I am involved in,” she tells the Magazine. “I have engaged a professional business adviser, Tal Freiman, and together we invest time, effort and money in the organizations that meet our criteria. I check every initiative as I would a business. I look for exceptional performance, efficiency, transparency and return on the investment. Being nonprofit, all these are measured not by revenue, but by attaining goals. I look for creative and exceptional management and extraordinary people. That is how I decide where to invest my time and my money.”
She points out a graphic of a Star of David in her office that she calls her “Magen David of values,” saying she now chooses to focus on six guidelines in whatever she does: choosing Israel and the Western Galilee, togetherness, exceptional performance, philanthropy, social responsibility and leadership.
As she talks about her projects, her eyes light up and her enthusiasm is infectious. She speaks of her family, her parents and her vision for the country. She talks in great detail about her long-term involvement in nonprofit organizations, as well as her work with Jewish communities in the Diaspora. She is not ashamed to call herself a new Zionist, and is never satisfied with just words: She puts a lot of time and effort, and large sums of her own money, where her mouth is.
From time to time, especially when she talks about the youngsters in the organizations to which she contributes, a tear wells in the corner of her eye, but she quickly regains her composure.
“My parents came to Israel in 1936 from Germany,” she says. “To this day, I am in awe of their courage and vision. Their decision to come here in those years despite the difficulties inspires me. They both came from very affluent families and could go wherever they wanted, but they chose to be pioneers in Eretz Yisrael and settled in Nahariya, where they built the Strauss Dairy.”
She recalls growing up in a home “where giving and sharing was a way of life.”
“It started even before my parents’ generation,” she says. “My grandfather, who was an industrialist in Ulm [Germany], also volunteered in the hevra kadisha [Jewish burial society] in the city. My father was the president of the Rotary. When the refugees came from Europe, my parents gave them work in the factory and became their family. The refugees came with no money; many had no profession or education, and Strauss was much more than a place of work for them.”
She remembers celebrating the holidays together at the factory. “My mother organized the food and decorations. I remember on Hanukka we sang the songs in many languages. On Rosh Hashana and Passover, she bought new clothes for the children, and she organized weddings and bar mitzvas in our home.
My father, who had the only private car in Nahariya at the time, would drive people to the hospital or do other tasks. That is how we lived. When there were floods, we had workers living in our home. When the Hagana needed to hide weapons, they were stashed in the refrigeration area at the plant. It was not called philanthropy; it was our way of life.”
As such, she is not satisfied with just writing a check or going to cocktail parties.
“When I worked at Strauss, I was in charge of philanthropy. So when I decided to sell my shares in the company, it was only a natural evolution [to continue in philanthropy].”
She says that 12 years ago, it dawned on her that being socially responsible involved much more than just giving money.
“I decided to do it professionally. I studied at university, attended international conferences and decided to invest only in organizations that were worthy,” she says.
To help in forming criteria and helping those selected, she recruited Freiman, a relative who works as a top strategy and business consultant to many companies in the country. Freiman admits that at first he didn’t understand what she was talking about.
“I didn’t understand why volunteer organizations needed business planning,” he says. “But I soon realized that running such organizations is not only much like running a business, but it is actually more complicated. In terms of cash flow, for instance, it is very hard to predict how much money you will be able to raise; therefore, it is almost impossible to plan a budget. And there are other unique difficulties.”
“I want the organizations that I am involved with to have multi-annual strategic planning,” says Strauss Bendror. “We analyze those organizations through businesslike criteria: positioning, conducting, investor relations, efficiency and overall performance. I have been involved with a few of the organizations for more than 20 years.”
She has been involved with Beit Shanti, for instance, for the last two decades. “I remember when I first visited the house in Neveh Tzedek.
Maryuma Klein, who founded the facility, had worked hard to get me to come, but in the middle of our conversation, a group of young girls came in, and she immediately turned her attention to them.
Forgetting about me, she started cooking for them, asking them about their day, comforting them. I sat there fascinated and knew that I wanted to be involved. She is amazing.”
Strauss Bendror notes that “we now have a house in the desert, where we can take care of many more kids.
But at the beginning, Maryuma used to collect food from the streets. She has a success rate of 82 percent.
She takes the kids off the streets and brings them back to school and gives them a future. She always says that knowing I am at her side for the long term gives her the strength to continue.”
Strauss Bendror calls exceptional performance the new Zionism.
“We have to be the best to survive, so I look for those who have vision, those who dream and strive to realize their dreams. Take the Nahariya hospital, for instance.
It not only provides excellent healthcare, but it is one of the largest employers in the area, providing jobs for 2,400 people. It draws a more educated population to the area, and medical experts from around the world go there for internship in the Genetic Center and the Cardiac Unit. The hospital’s chief, Dr. Barhom, is a man of vision and brings the center to new heights,” she says.
Regarding the Diaspora, she says, “my involvement with Jewish organizations over the years has taught me that I am first a Jew, then an Israeli. Like most Israelis, I never thought too much about Diaspora Jewry. I now know that I was ignorant and arrogant. When I joined the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, I started traveling to different Jewish federations and communities, and it became the passion of my life. It changed my life forever. Through my work with Partnership2Gether and as the chairperson of the Jewish Federation of the Jewish Agency, I learned more about the importance of working together. Those communities were there when Israel needed them to help in the massive challenge of building the State of Israel, and we cannot take that help for granted.”
She feels that “we Israelis do not understand enough about the importance of the Jews in the Diaspora. Likewise, so many members of the younger generation in Jewish communities overseas are not connected enough to Jewish tradition and Israel.”
A strong believer in bridging gaps between people, the secular Strauss Bendror is also highly involved with Nahariya’s hesder yeshiva, Nahar Deiah. She says that besides having good working relations with the chief rabbis of the city and contributing to the yeshiva, she got closer to the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Eliyahu Blum, when the North was under fire several years ago.
“He and his students were delivering food and necessities to the aged and infirm who couldn’t get to the shelters. They know the people and knew who lived on the top floor and couldn’t get downstairs. We connected in the mission of saving lives and stayed connected,” she says.
She has also been involved in Aharai! (Follow Me!) – an organization that develops young leadership and promotes social involvement among youth from weak social backgrounds – since the beginning, together with industrialist Dov Lautman, she says.
“That is a project that moves me.”
By connecting these youths to milestones in Israeli society, such as preparation for military service and higher education, Aharai! aims to provide them with a sense of achievement and encourages them to be contributing citizens. Strauss Bendror says it always brings tears to her eyes when one of the youngsters speaks at an annual event.
“Last year, a young officer was chosen to speak,” she recounts. “He told the audience that he was a juvenile delinquent, when one day he saw a group training for the army on the beach in Netanya. The leader invited him to join the group. He was reluctant, saying that the army didn’t want him, but he joined them anyway, and ended up serving as an officer in a special unit. The young man addressed the chief of staff who was present, saying, ‘Look for our soldiers; they will be your best.’” Calling Nahariya her home, she has always been involved with initiatives in the Western Galilee, such as the Dance Village in Kibbutz Ga’aton, the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum and the Keshet Eilon international violin master classes. But it was her involvement with the Reut Institute and the Israel 15 Vision initiative that made her look for something that would help promote the area as a whole.
“This is my home. I grew up here. The concept of leapfrogging, which means that everyone should enjoy the prosperity – the idea that we need the periphery to become stronger in order to advance Israel – got me thinking about what could advance this area. In brainstorming with a group of top executives, we came to the conclusion that promoting tourism in the Western Galilee area was a step in the right direction,” she says.
That region, she explains, “offers what today’s tourists are looking for – a vacation with a sense of well-being. There are endless options to suit all tastes and budgets: beautiful scenic trails, unique nature parks, stunning beaches, endless outdoor activities such as hiking, horseback riding and cycling, as well as various extreme sports and water sports. There is a rich diversity of cultures and religions in the area, being home to Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druse and Circassians, all living within short distances. There are many historical sites and religious sites and a vast number of lodging facilities, ranging from simple youth hostels to exclusive retreats, boutique hotels and guest houses.”
Nonetheless, she continues, “many tourists and Israelis overlook it when planning their vacation or even a quick weekend getaway, leaving local businesses with an average of 30% annual capacity.”
According to Freiman, “the problem we saw was that each tried to promote themselves alone, not as a region.”
Ozrot Hagalil not only organizes the various private initiatives under one roof, but also provides entrepreneurs with the tools to succeed and a platform for promoting their businesses.
Says Strauss Bendror, “It was hard to convince some of them at the beginning that we offer free help. In return, we demand that they maintain a high level of service, be true to what they advertise and learn to work in cooperation with others in the area.”
So far, more than 400 have joined the initiative.
The small entrepreneurs were given a seminar on how to utilize the project’s website and cellphone application, which allow visitors to the area to create a tailor-made tour for themselves, contact the various vendors – hotels, restaurants, shops, tour guides and the various attractions – and receive quotes, answers and directions by phone or online.
Ozrot Hagalil also provides the entrepreneurs with professional advice.
“Sometimes we request that they make changes to their sites to meet our standards. We invest in training.
For instance, together with local colleges, we started seminars in tourist-related professions, and we give scholarships for evening classes in those seminars.
We also help businesses get improvement loans and accompany our members along the way,” she says.
The project’s experts constantly monitor all the companies and organizations involved to make sure they not only meet standards, but stay true to their advertisements.
“I believe in togetherness. We need to work together for the benefit of all,” says Strauss Bendror. “It was my mother’s wish that my brother and I continue to work together. Unlike many family-owned businesses, we manage to do just that and stay good friends.”