I never thought I would be opening an article in The Jerusalem Post with a story about Afghanistan.
Since making aliyah and moving to Israel, I have dedicated myself to serving my country as the “self-appointed ambassador-at-large for the State of Israel.” Israel is very often maligned in foreign media, which carries a largely negative depiction of our country, an image that doesn’t match the Israel I know and love. To remedy this false portrayal, my idea is to try to project a more realistic view of our country – a “normal” Israel – to large audiences around the world. Through world-class cultural and sporting events, we can reach the group I call the silent majority, without the filter of hostile conventional media.
This silent majority – including sports fans, music fans, and others – is largely apolitical. These people don’t know us, nor even care very much about us. But if asked, they would likely express a negative impression due to the monochromatic media coverage of our nation. My projects deliver “normal” Israel into their living rooms – via their television sets – and show our true face. And, I know we are succeeding in changing minds and improving our image, as I’ve received a ton of positive personal feedback. Not only that, pre-COVID, Israel had the largest growth rate in tourism in the world. These projects have certainly contributed to this growth.
However, what I witnessed over the past month was not just a normal Israel, but an exceptional, exemplary, big-hearted Israel.
Due to my profile in the world of cycling, as the owner of the first Israeli professional team, Team Israel Start-up Nation, I was approached by the Afghan Cycling Federation, on behalf of their female members, to see if I could help extract these terrified women from a country where simply riding one’s bike can get you killed. This morphed into a daring rescue mission that has, so far, saved 165 souls from a terrible fate in Afghanistan, bringing them to safety. Working directly with the wonderful Israeli NGO, IsraAid, we rescued female judges, activists, families of diplomats, robotics experts, and of course, the female cyclists that initiated this mission.
Lives were risked, resources were committed, and a multinational group of committed volunteers – led by an Israeli organization – made this miracle happen. This mission is ongoing, and we continue to work inside Afghanistan to extract others. While merely a drop in the bucket among the millions heart-achingly at risk, we are doing what we can.
This life-saving mission exemplifies our ancient Jewish cultural imperative of tikkun olam. Our Jewish state always punches above its weight, making many heroic contributions to the global community. I am humbled to be able to contribute.
Moreover, the country that accepted our first group was our new Abraham Accords peace partner, the UAE, specifically because it was an Israeli mission, saving Muslim women. This is a refreshing new beginning with our Middle Eastern neighbors.
THIS BRINGS me back to the theme of my activities. My projects show the true face of Israel abroad. But the flipside of this is that they also unite us as Israelis, through pride in being on the world stage. Most of us remember the 2018 Giro d’Italia Big Start, where our entire country, north to south, including a full day in our national capital of Jerusalem, was seen around the world by a billion television spectators. Even days prior, few Israelis had ever heard of the Giro. Yet knowing we were on the world stage, this event drew nearly a million Israelis into the streets to watch and cheer on the home team, my Team Israel Start-up Nation. It was a three-day national group hug that brought us closer together as a nation. This is the power of sport.
Our Olympic successes evoke a similar unified pride. This is why I founded a sports science institute at Tel Aviv University, to use our proficiency in science to reap Olympic medals.
I also established the first velodrome in the Middle East, where we will be hosting the world’s best in the Track Champion’s League in December. Additionally, we will host the 2022 World Junior Track championships, a rare opportunity for Israel to host a sporting world championship. This piece of cycling infrastructure will project Israel all over the world. And because we Israelis are winners, I promise Israeli medals in the near future.
Team Israel Start-up Nation (ISN), the first-ever Israeli team in any sport to compete in its sport’s highest league, the UCI WorldTour, takes our message of tikkun olam around the world on a weekly basis, with the name Israel prominently emblazoned on our jerseys. ISN is more than just a cycling team. We carry a social mission, promoting coexistence, peace and national pride throughout the globe. I believe sport is an invaluable resource that enables people from different backgrounds, races, religions and ethnicities to come together and compete, in respect, sportsmanship – and eventually, in friendship.
Sport builds bridges. Sport brings people together. We saw the Israeli flag raised and “Hatikva” played when our judoka won in Abu Dhabi. Later, my ISN team competed in the Tour of the UAE, where we rode freely in the streets with Israeli jerseys. Arab youth stood in line to get a souvenir water bottle with the word Israel prominently featured. I said at the time, quite prophetically as things have since transpired, that we were building people-to-people bridges. I predicted that the day that our leaders could agree on a diplomatic peace agreement, we would have already prepared the ground for a warm peace between our citizens. Later that year, the Abraham Accords were consummated.
BUT, I also believe that we must strengthen the home front. As such, I have made contributions to critical infrastructure – in health and in education in our country. We built a children’s hospital in Ir Hayeladim, the City of Children, Holon. Also under construction is a state-of-the-art emergency ward at Ichilov in Tel Aviv, which when completed next year will be the country’s finest.
I am also one of the major donors to Save a Child’s Heart, a humanitarian organization that provides life-saving cardiac care for children from the Palestinian territories and developing countries who do not have access to adequate medical care at home. Yet another example of tikkun olam.
I am particularly proud of having supported the construction of a state- of-the-art gymnasium at the iconic Jerusalem YMCA, where the entire city, east and west, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, religious and secular, young and old congregate together. Bringing our citizens closer together in an ever-changing world must be a priority.
Another priority of mine is demographic continuity in the Diaspora, or simply put, ensuring Jewish grandkids. We are one people, Am Israel. I believe we need large investments in Jewish education and must seriously address its affordability; because we are losing our diaspora youth. You cannot love what you don’t know. This is why we must invest in the youth of our people. I financed the building of a Jewish high school in my former home of Montreal, and contributed to an endowment that provides confidential, dignified tuition assistance to families, to encourage enrollment of their children in the Jewish school system.
Just as Israel remains ahead of the global curve in tackling COVID-19, the Vaccination Nation, I believe we can become a real international hub of cultural and sporting activity; moving away from social distancing and bringing people-to-people bridge-building back to the fore. While much of the world was still in various lockdowns, we recently hosted the French Super Cup in front of a packed – vaccinated – crowd at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv. The world watched on with awe and admiration.
So I plan to continue to promote this “normal Israel” by bringing world-class cultural and sporting events to the country. From Messi to Madonna, the Giro d’Italia to the Super Cup, we’ve proven that we can host the biggest and the best.
Up next, we have the first IronMan Israel taking place at the beginning of November, the precursor to the groundbreaking IronMan Middle East Championships on the way in 2022. The world’s finest endurance athletes from across the region and further afield will be arriving in Tiberius to swim in the Kinneret, bike up the biblical hills of the Galilee and run along the ancient shores.
I am trying to lead by example, and hope that the activities that I’ve described inspire others to consider giving back to our state and to our people. No one’s success is entirely their own. We Jews and Israelis grew up in a culture that shaped our perspectives and supported our ambitions. When that success is achieved, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to be able to give back to the society that supported our dreams. So, I call out to my Israeli and Diaspora friends to join me in giving “Jewishly,” and to never forget the rich cultural underpinnings that mark our strength and success.
We want to bring more and more tourists, athletes and spectators to see this land for themselves. To feel the warmth of our people. To experience the normal and exceptional Israel that I so dearly love and call my home. Anyone who wishes to join in this exciting mission will be more than welcome.
Israelis always ask me, “Sylvan what’s next?”
My answer is simple.
“I’m JUST. GETTING. STARTED.”
The writer is an Israeli-Candian businessman and philanthropist, and co-owner of the Israel Start-Up Nation cycling team.