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JEWISH JOURNAL, 2014: AM YISRAEL FOUNDATION MODELING VOLUNTEERISM AS AN OBSERVANT ZIONIST

Modeling volunteerism in Israel as an Observant Zionist (full article)

This year, Jay Shultz won’t be making a Thanksgiving dinner for the hundreds of American olim (immigrants) he has managed to unite in Tel Aviv through his Am Yisrael Foundation. He did serve one last year, when America’s holiday of gratitude coincided with Chanukah, as a way to give American Jews that rare blend of “Thanksgivukkah.”

That’s not to say he’s not grateful for his early years in Fair Lawn, N.J. It’s the American spirit of civic engagement, charity and community that drive him to create an impactful and socially conscious melting pot of olim in Tel Aviv — Americans and Europeans who choose the Jewish state over the old country.

“For a young Jew to be able to come here and say, ‘I built community. I’m a leader because I created platforms for volunteering and chesed.’ Wow! That’s straight-up Cowboy 101 in the Wild West.”

Under the White City Shabbat brand, Shultz — who volunteers his time without pay, and also donates his own money to the effort — and his team of social activists have created one mega Jewish thanksgiving feast to last a few generations — if Shabbat can count as such. This past summer, 2,226 olim and Diaspora Jews, among them a mission of young professionals from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, ate a Shabbat meal inside Hangar 11 at the Tel Aviv Port, making headlines as Guinness World Records’ largest Shabbat dinner.

The purpose was less to popularize Shabbat than to turn Tel Aviv into a lighthouse (which, Shultz points out, is the city’s emblem) to inspire Jews to cross the Mediterranean Sea as modern Zionism’s pioneers.

He likes to describe Tel Aviv as “a college campus,” but it’s not the parties, beach or nightlife that make Israel’s metropolis the Jewish world’s shining light. At 38, the newly engaged Shultz hardly goes out. He’s a full-time, self-proclaimed “struggling philanthropist” and part-time real-estate investor.

“What makes Tel Aviv sexy is the fact that it’s young people creating a vibrant Jewish future.”

When Shultz came to Israel about 10 years ago, no organized network existed for Tel Aviv’s young olim — which have since quadrupled in number from 5,000. Starting with an ever-growing email database, he created a slew of grass-roots volunteer organizations under the Am Yisrael Foundation umbrella, offering platforms for “roll-up-your-sleeves aliyah by choice.”

These include the Tel Aviv International Salon, hosting politicians, authors and world-renowned speakers, with the iconic Jewish sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer packing the house this past summer. The Tel Aviv Arts Council familiarizes new olim with Israeli film and art. Shomer Israel organizes patrols of olim through endangered communities in the Galilee and Negev. Adopt-a-Safta, which recently received a grant from the L.A. Jewish Federation, pairs olim with Holocaust survivors.

A grandchild of survivors, Shultz feels a calling to determine the Jewish future, which he believes the United States can’t sustain. The most recent Pew Research Center study alarmed the Jewish community with its report of Jewish apathy among millennials. He sees the pattern in his classmates in the U.S. who have married non-Jews.

“Assimilation, to me, is the No. 1 issue,” he said. “I’m not worried about Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas as much as I’m worried about ourselves.”

The answer, he believes, is what he calls “observant Zionism.” Jewish communal and Zionist frameworks in the U.S., even Birthright, won’t make the necessary paradigm shifts to empower Jewish continuity for generations to come.

“They’re still putting Band-Aids on cancer patients. We’re still losing more than we’re gaining. And why am I here? Listen, I have a tremendous amount of ideology in the Jewish past, present and future, and I want to be a part of that — but you don’t need to be a martyr to live in Israel anymore. It’s good living here.”

Still, as Israel’s quality of life is consistently on the rise, he believes today’s Western olim can be as transformative in their cumulative Jewish impact as the early kibbutzniks from the European shtetl.

“When you invest in Israel — not just money, but time and creative energy — it’s our bank account.”

Until recently, Shultz and his team ran their basket of organizations as volunteers. After an arduous, two-year application process, Am Yisrael Foundation is now a nonprofit, registered as such in the United States.

It will take American prosperity to take his programming nationwide — as a testament to the Diaspora’s success.

“Our community consists of representatives of every successful Jewish community in the world. That’s who’s here.”