JEWISH PRESS, 2018: AM YISRAEL FOUNDATION & TEL AVIV ZIONISM
The Am Yisrael Foundation & Tel Aviv Zionism (full article)
Jewish Press, June 2018, by Shmuel Sackett
Tel Aviv is the center of the Jewish world. Certainly Jerusalem is our eternal capital both spiritually and politically, but one quarter of global Jewry lives in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area making it the most Jewish place on Earth. Tel Aviv is the main influencer for the overwhelming majority of Israelis. For the past 100 years, the “White City” has been home to the most significant vibrant innovative centers of Israeli culture, business, fashion, art, finance, high-tech, film, television, and the army. Tel Aviv is currently is one of the youngest cities in the world per-capita with over 40% of the populace being between 20-40 years old. Today the majority of Olim immigrants to Israel choose Tel Aviv as their home. A city full of bustling boulevards, cafes, startups, baby strollers, construction cranes, venture capital, art galleries, and over 500 synagogues; has surpassed even the dreams of Theodor Herzl, approaching the visions of our ancient prophets.
“For all of Israel’s triumphs over the past 70 years, we are still in the pioneering phase of the country. What an honor it is to be a young Jew here now, being able to invest creativity, imagination, and energy towards building the next 1000 years of the Jewish People. Nowhere else on the planet can a young Jew be as relevant and central to our nation’s collective destiny than Tel Aviv”, says President of the Am Yisrael Foundation, Jay Shultz. Jay moved from New York to Tel Aviv in 2006 and has been championing the banner of the city ever since, with Israeli media understandably dubbing him “Tel Aviv’s Other Mayor”. Recognizing the potential to use Tel Aviv as a positive fundamental force for the benefit of young Jews worldwide, Jay founded the Am Yisrael Foundation a decade ago, building the nonprofit into what is now the largest young adult Jewish community organization in the world with a following of over 60,000. The Am Yisrael Foundation (AmYisrael.com) is a giant umbrella for tens of innovative initiatives that empower young Jews to pioneer Israeli society. “We cannot take for granted that the future of our People will have strong Jewish or Zionist identities. The main goal of our work in Tel Aviv is to inspire every young Jew on the planet to connect to a shared vision of Jewish destiny, giving them the tools to continue building our Home in the Land of Israel.”
Devoted to his work, Jay cannot understand why every young Jew living around the globe does not move to Tel Aviv yesterday, and contributing to what he sees as the most important happening in the Jewish World. “There are no problems here, Israel is too new to complain about anything. We only have vacuums that need filling, aspects of our society that we just haven’t had the luxury to build yet. These needs make Israel, and specifically Tel Aviv, the most exciting place to be at the most exciting time in Jewish history. Here a young Jew can roll-up-their-sleeves, standing directly on the shoulders of Herzl and Rav Kook, Ben-Gurion and Begin, to also be a Zionist pioneer.” The Am Yisrael Foundation is more than rebooting Zionism for a new generation, it is redefining our time in history, giving young Jews the opportunity to be uniquely relevant. Jay focuses his foundation’s work on building what he believes are the next steps in Zionist pioneering – developing the vacuums left in Israeli civil society; community, volunteerism, tzedakah, civic engagement, grassroots leaderships, and Jewish identity.
To this end, the Am Yisrael Foundation has created something unique for Israel, what many see as a mini Jewish Federation, founding and managing a multitude of organizations, with a special focus on Tel Aviv. Many of these organizations have become pillars of community life for so many of the city’s young adults. There is the Tel Aviv International Salon (TLVSalon.com), Israel’s largest speakers forum that works to engage young adults in the critical issues of the day, regularly hosting local and international leaders. The list of former Salon speakers are a who’s who of decision makers, including; James Woolsey CIA Director, Meir Dagan Mossad Director, Professor Alan Dershowitz, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Naftali Bennett, Boujie Herzog, Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, global Ambassadors, US Governors, and even the formidable Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Their Tel Aviv Arts Council (TelAvivArts.com) works to create young patrons of the Israeli arts, while also acting as an international nonprofit PR agency helping the world consume Israeli creativity. Another flagship volunteerism program of the foundation is Adopt-A-Safta (AdoptASafta.com). “Safta” being Hebrew for “Grandma”, pairs young volunteers with lonely Israeli Holocaust Survivors on the Big Brother/Big Sister model. Of the approximately 136,000 Holocaust Survivors left in Israel, their number one complaint when polled has consistently been simple loneliness. Adopt-A-Safta address this heartbreaking problem and honors Holocaust memory by ensuring that a young generation of Jews connects personally with Survivors while we still have the honor of making their twilight years full of happiness and meaning.
Even though Tel Aviv has its legendary Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (another strong supporter of Jay’s work), and is home to more synagogues and kosher restaurants than New York, the city still has a stronger reputation for its beaches and parties. Jay laments over Israel’s complacency when it comes to Jewish education. A major focus on the Am Yisrael Foundation’s efforts is not taking for granted the Jewish character and Jewish identity of the nation. “It is a great investment for the future of our People in giving Tel Aviv’s young professionals positive Jewish life experiences and transformative Jewish educational opportunities. Most of Israeli future leaders in politics, business, and culture are young Jews living in Tel Aviv today. If we care about our Homeland having a rich Jewish character in more than name alone, investing in Tel Aviv should to be our main collective focus.” The Am Yisrael Foundation has developed groundbreaking initiatives with its Jewish outreach efforts. White City Shabbat is the main portal for community Shabbat life in Tel Aviv, hosting ten of thousands of young Jews for Shabbat and holiday meals each year. It is so important to Jay to reveal the deep spiritual potential of what he calls “Tel Aviv Ir HaKodesh”, that in 2014 he set the Guinness Record for the World’s Largest Shabbat Dinner. Working as Educational Director of the Am Yisrael Foundation, Rabbi Shlomo Chayen is Tel Aviv’s popular young Jewish community leader, running a center for beginners Jewish education and the city’s most active synagogue, 126 Ben Yehuda (126BenYehuda.com) home to hundreds of young Olim & Sabras from all backgrounds, religiosities, and nationalities. To connect more young Jews from around the world to the Land of Israel, the foundation launched Torah Tech (TorahTech.co), Tel Aviv’s first gap-year Jewish leadership program that combines study with high-tech internships in the leading companies of the Startup Nation. All these initiatives and others are part of Jay’s long-term strategy to bring more opportunities for young Tel Avivis to take ownership and pride in being part of Am Yisrael.
A key to the Am Yisrael Foundation’s strategy is to create partnerships between young Olim that come to Israel with a dedicated passion for Zionism, with native-born young Sabras. Together, these two populations compliment each other in ways that have the ability to truly “move needles” for the positive future of Israel. Thus the heavy emphasis on Aliyah, mass Jewish immigration to Israel, is a cornerstone of Jay’s work. TLV Internationals (LoveTelAviv.com), is Israel’s largest Olim community organization and is the main “welcome home” portal for young immigrants. Their ProjecT.A. created Israel’s first Olim training and volunteer police force in partnership with the Israel National Police. Dedicated to also championing his community on the local and global level, Jay invented and got created as law through Israel’s parliament the Knesset, the county’s newest national holiday – Yom HaAliyah. Aliyah Day is now celebrated on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, a date chosen because the Torah records it as the first mass Aliyah in history, when Joshua led all of Am Yisrael across the Jordan River into the Land. Yom HaAliyah celebrates Aliyah as a core value of the Jewish People and the ongoing positive contributions that Olim make to the State of Israel.
When asked to sum up his philosophy, Jay coined the term “Observant Zionism”.
“Observant Zionism holds that every Jew must take upon himself the mantle of mutual responsibility for our Home and our People. Observant Zionism is the pioneering spirit, vision, and pro-activity of reinvigorating our national renaissance in Eretz Yisrael. There is no one way to observe Zionism, the key is dedicated and elevated action. Just like all aspects of Jewish life, Observant Zionism should take on wonderfully varied forms of expression that reflects the individual and their unique ability to contribute to Am Yisrael. Observant Zionism can not be limited to religious or secular spheres, it is part of our romantic, mystical and revolutionary national DNA. There has never been an easier time in history for a Jew to live in the Land of Israel. This is your Home, come build it. We have spent millenia wanting to build this country, now that we are here we must get our hands dirty and build a Nation. Am Yisrael Chai!”