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North American immigrants lead in Israel’s nonprofit sector

TEL AVIV (JTA) — When David Portowicz was a new immigrant to Israel from Brooklyn in the 1970s, he began research on poverty in Jaffa that would lead to his life’s work: the creation of a nonprofit organization that now serves thousands of disadvantaged children and their families.

A doctoral student in social work at the time, the small NGO he co-founded in 1982, the Jaffa Institute, today is a veritable force of nature with 35 programs and an annual operating budget of $6 million. The institute runs afterschool activity centers to help keep kids off the streets, offers university scholarships for 170 graduates of Jaffa programs, has shelters for runaways and even provides music lessons.

“It’s a mission of love,” Portowicz says. “You work hard.”

Portowicz is one of many immigrants from North America who along with other English-speaking immigrants to Israel have played an outsized role in Israel’s growing nonprofit sector. For many, the same idealistic instincts that prompted them to leave comfortable lives in North America, Britain and elsewhere for Israel led them to top roles in the Israeli nonprofit sector, and they have brought with them a mixture of can-do enthusiasm, background in grass-roots activism and fundraising skills that have helped make their projects successful.

“We are talking about the kind of people who are immigrants by choice,” said Alon Tal, an immigrant from the United States who founded one of the most influential environmental groups in Israel, Adam Teva V’din, Israel Union Environmental Defense.

“Many of us grew up in youth movements where you are raised on the idea that you are supposed to change the world,” Tal said. “It’s a certain kind of person willing to take a chance and who could have been very successful” in their home country. “For some of us, the thought was that if you are coming here, you might as well have an adventure.”

Over the last decade, the number of nongovernmental organizations in Israel has multiplied as Israel’s traditionally socialist-leaning welfare system has significantly downsized. Some 12,000 NGOs are now active in Israel. English-speaking immigrants have found their niche not only in reaching out to the socio-economically disadvantaged, but also in civil society areas like the environment, human rights, religious pluralism and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

“It’s likely because Anglos come with a much more developed idea of civic society than other ethnic groups in the country, and so they get involved,” said Sydney Engelberg, a faculty member at Hebrew University’s program in nonprofit management.

“Part of my Zionist feeling was that if I can help anyone, I want to help children in Israel,” Portowicz said. “I think I made a bigger difference here than I thought I would make.”

When Tal came to Israel in 1990 at the age of 29, he vacillated between joining the just-established Environmental Ministry or establishing an environmental advocacy organization. He went with the latter.

“A large percentage of many Israeli nonprofits come from international Jewish philanthropy, so there is a home-court advantage for American immigrants in terms of English skills and cultural affiliation,” Tal told JTA.

Miriam Garmaise, an immigrant to Israel from Canada, also became a prominent environmentalist. She is the executive director of Shomer for a Better Environment, a nonprofit established in 1998 by Tamar Gindis, a fellow Canadian immigrant, that focuses on national, cross-sector projects. Their current flagship project is promoting a gray-water recycling initiative intended to jump-start the practice of recycling shower and laundry water as a way to save up to tens of millions of cubic meters of water a year.

Garmaise traces her interest in activism to growing up in Canada, where her parents were active in the Jewish community and projects to help Israel.

“The fact that people like me moved to Israel is because we consider Israel a very important place to be and to contribute to once we are here,” she said.

As for the bureaucratic and other stumbling blocks they face here, Garmaise is upbeat.

“I have come to respect the need for time and patience to make things happen,” she said.

Portowicz adds, “You persist. You don’t take no for an answer.”

Seth Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who immigrated from the United States and founded ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, knows all about persistence. He fights what he says often seems like an interminably uphill battle to help Israeli and Diaspora Jews navigate the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which holds a monopoly on issues of religion like conversion and marriage.

Farber believes his American background has been helpful in his work, specifically his knowledge of how other Jewish religious leadership models work.

“In Israel people don’t feel as responsible for their Jewish life, so it can sometimes have less meaning,” Farber said. “What I can bring to the table is a middle ground, an opportunity for people to have their say.

“Americans put a lot of belief into the third sector to have power and make a difference,” he adds. “Because I’m a Zionist and this is the center of the Jewish people now, this is where I want to make my impact.”

Another American-run Israeli NGO involved in efforts to reduce tensions between religion and state is Tzohar, founded by a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in 1996, soon after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

The organization’s current executive vice president is Nahum Rosenberg, an American immigrant.

“It’s important to be not only bilingual but bicultural and live in both worlds,” Rosenberg said.

He says Americans bring advantages when it comes to fundraising and the culture of management.

“We may be nonprofits, but that does not mean we are not performance organizations. So you need to have that side,” he said, referring to professional Western standards for NGOs. “And you need to have that Israeli flair for ingenuity and perseverance with the ability to stretch every shekel as far as it can go.

“If you can seize on both traits, you can use them to your advantage.”