Idealism personified

The story of Ilan Wagner's, 56, aliyah from Boston.

Ilan Wagner, 56, from Boston to Kibbutz Ketura to Modi'in  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilan Wagner, 56, from Boston to Kibbutz Ketura to Modi'in
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How does a self-proclaimed right-wing Republican teenager, who has disclaimed Judaism, go from Boston to a socialist kibbutz with an idealistic group of young Jewish Americans?
Like many others, Ilan Wagner’s story begins with a high-school infatuation.
“After my Reform bar mitzvah, I literally turned my back on Judaism in favor of assimilation,” says Wagner. “I had nothing to do with Jewish life.”
That was until a friend invited him to a pool party and he fell for a girl. She happened to be active in the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement, and Wagner joined to get to know her better. As he got more and more involved, he saw opportunity for leadership, involvement and activism, which spoke to his very idealistic nature.
“This was a peer-led movement in the late ’70s, and we were full of burning questions, new ideas and intellectual discourse on Zionism and Israel,” recalls Wagner.
Despite his growing leadership roles, an adviser pointed out to him that he’d actually never been to Israel and he should go.
After acceptance to the University of Chicago, he took a year off and went to Israel on Young Judaea’s Year Course leadership program. The elements of the program appealed to him, other than having to spend a few months on a kibbutz.
This socialist venture was light-years away from his worldview. He tried to push it to the end, thinking the program organizers would forget about it, but to no avail.
He and three others from the program went to Kibbutz Ketura, deep in the Negev’s Arava region.
“I was worried about going, but what I saw there were idealistic people living a deliberate lifestyle and building an intentional community,” he says. “I was really inspired, and realized that it wasn’t about politics, but about choices. I decided that I wanted to live in a place like this.”
First, Wagner needed to get his degree, as he had promised his parents. While at school, he and a number of his Young Judaea friends created a college-age group within the movement. Although they met periodically, they felt that if they were serious about their activities, they needed to be together more. To do that, “We developed a junior year program in Migdal Ha’emek, volunteering, teaching English and learning Hebrew,” says Wagner.
This led to the desire to start their own kibbutz, but in 1982 this was not realistic. They created a “manifesto” of their values and looked at places where they could live this out. The place closest to their values was Ketura.
Wagner finished his degree in political science, and the group lived together in a communal house in New York in preparation for their aliyah.
After arriving at Ketura, Wagner became a teacher, and then, as an added job, was appointed director of singles, which he says he accepted “because in this isolated place I needed opportunities to broaden my own social horizons.”
Indeed, while preparing for this position, he met his future wife, Shoshi, the social coordinator of the Arava region, who lived on nearby Kibbutz Yotvata. After they married in 1992, he moved to Yotvata, where he became a civics teacher and headed up education on the kibbutz.
When an opportunity arose for the Wagners to be Hadassah emissaries in New York, working with college-age students, they took it. At the end of this stint, they adopted Adi, who joined Amit, both of whom were adopted from Ukraine, and returned to the kibbutz.
Wagner, who now held a master’s degree in political science from Tel Aviv University, requested permission from the kibbutz to do his PhD. The kibbutz asked him to postpone this plan and required him to contribute a year of service in the famous dairy. After that year, and as part of a desire to experience a different lifestyle in Israel, he and Shoshi decided to leave the kibbutz.
WAGNER WAS hired as the assistant to Alan Hoffmann, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Education Department, and the family moved to the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem, one month before the Second Intifada began. This was a far cry from the kibbutz life they had known.
Ilan was then appointed head of Global Student Activities at the agency. In 2004, he was asked to become an emissary in the US again, this time in Washington, DC, where he became the lead emissary for the Hillel organization and helped establish the Campus Israel Fellows program. This was followed by a move to New York City, where he headed the Jewish Agency’s North American Education Department.
“After five years we returned to Israel and chose to live in Modi’in. My parents, who had spent time in Israel after our first child was born [and adopted], came back from the US to live near us,” says Wagner. “I continued my work for the agency, and became deputy director of the Unit for Educational Experiences in Israel.”
It was here that Onward Israel, a six- to 10-week immersive summer internship experience, was born. Spearheaded by visionary philanthropists Cynthia and David Shapira from Pittsburgh, this new program filled a need for young people to return to Israel after the 10-day Birthright trip. The goal was to give them the opportunity for a summer internship in their field of study, while immersing in Israeli life and culture. “This program struck a chord for me,” says Wagner. “I know how much my life changed by going to Israel and connecting in a real way. It is so powerful. I wanted to give this same opportunity to others.
In 2016, Onward Israel became an independent organization, and Wagner was appointed CEO.
“Our core mission is clear. We want to meaningfully increase – by thousands – the number of less engaged students and young adults who participate in Jewish identity- building experiences in Israel. “At the same time, we want to allow them to advance their personal and professional aspirations in an affordable and time-suitable framework,” says Wagner. “This is their chance to engage with Israel through interning at start-ups, innovation and social justice programs and to have a truly transformative experience.”