On a recent return visit to Tucson, Adam Scott Bellos, founder of The Israel Innovation Fund, told the AJP it felt like “coming full circle for me.” Bellos says the unique Zionist nonprofit has its roots at the University of Arizona, where he spent three years in Judaic studies and received his bachelor’s degree.
TIIF is a new kind of nonprofit that “represents the next generation of Jews” by delivering Israeli culture to the world through experiences. “We’re young, lean and hungry,” says Bellos. Unlike most nonprofits, TIIF aims for self-sustainability while giving back to the community. TIIF is registered both as a U.S. 501c3 charity and an Israeli amuta (nonprofit).
Bellos originally followed a girl he fell in love with to UArizona. While they remain good friends today, she married another. But he left his mark on the university through the foundation in November 2007 of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. “It started in my house, with seven Jewish friends, but my parting gift was getting a house on campus,” for which he won the national fraternity’s Rabbi Leibman Award. The frat today has 70 members, of which now 30% are Jewish, Bellos says.
He credits that frat-building experience with sowing the seeds for his people-building success as an entrepreneur. He also credits his Judaic studies professors at UArizona with teaching him “how to think, not what to think.” Bellos said his ideas “crystalized at UofA because my educators believed in me. I am indebted to my professors for believing in me and still having my back. TIIF is a direct result of the UA Judaics program, taking it out of the classroom and into the real world.”
His study with Palestinian associate professor of modern Middle East History and Islamic studies, Maha Nassar, taught him opposite sides of conflict, Bellos says. “It opened my eyes to the total opposite side of Zionism.” He ticks off the names of Judaics program professors and staff who taught and mentored him and with whom he has maintained relationships for a decade: “David Graizbord, Ed Wright, John Winchester, helped define what I felt and peers influenced me. I’m indebted to the rabbis and the people who took the time to see past my eccentricities.”
“The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies takes pride in the fact that our faculty and staff pay close attention to our students,” Graizbord says.
“Adam Bellos was my student in or around 2011 when I supervised his senior thesis on ethnic nationalism and politics in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in what became Israel and the West Bank),” recalls Graizbord, today an associate professor and associate director of UArizona Judaic studies. “He impressed me as an independent thinker and consummate doer then and still does today.”
“My experiences created who I am, from March of the Living to study in Tel Aviv and UofA, military service,” Bellos says. Raised in Cincinnati, he attended Jewish day school and a Conservative synagogue. He became a serial entrepreneur who worked in the United States and China before relocating to Israel. He has made Tel Aviv home since 2012, served in the IDF, and earned his master’s degree from Tel Aviv University.
“I have different ideas on how to connect young people to Israel and on how the establishment isn’t reaching kids the way they need to. It wasn’t enough to maintain the fire in me or to connect to Israel or being a part of creating a Jewish community,” he says. “Through cutting-edge contemporary culture, lifestyle, and travel, young diaspora Jews and non-Jews are discovering new ways to personally connect to the Israeli experience in ways that go far beyond conflict and survival.
“Our vision is to connect people around the world through the vibrancy and creativity of contemporary Israeli culture by bringing Israel to you and then you to Israel,” Bellos says. “It’s like Chabad for Zionism. How does Chabad interest people in Judaism? Every Chabad event is experiential and engages your own curiosity. There are no initiatives about working with individual kids using Zionism as a framework.
“Zionism is the national liberation of the Jewish people, not about taking pride in Israel but taking pride in yourself. Letting kids know who they are, where they come from and where they can go. Zionism bestows the gift of the Jewish memory into the next generation,” Bellos says.
Bellos says this new Zionism will focus less on statecraft and more on creativity. Where last century Zionism was about creating the conditions for Jewish survival in a sovereign state, in the new century it’s about thriving, building outward, and sharing with the world.
“Everything we do is influenced by Adam’s experience,” David Hazony, TIIF’s executive director, told the AJP. “Graizbord gave him the 30,000-foot and the ground-level perspective to give TIIF the vision to do so many different things.”
TIIF invests in commercially viable cultural projects in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and various American cities. The primary focus is Wine on the Vine, which advances the relationship with Israeli wineries in a similar way previous generations did by planting trees in Israel. “Since May 2018 we have planted more than 5,000 vines,” Bellos said.
TIIF’s video production team operates under “What If? Studios,” working to maximize the impact of both Israeli culture and TIIF’s work by telling their stories. The Hebrew Wallpaper Project highlights talented young Israeli artists and supports their effort to beautify neglected urban areas with large-scale murals. Jaffa Nights events combine Israeli wine tasting, food, music, art — incorporating Hebrew Wallpaper Project artists — art auctions, and on-site video production. TIIF has hosted such events in Tel Aviv; Jerusalem; New York City; Hartford, Connecticut; Cincinnati; Miami, and Scottsdale, Arizona. On the ground in Israel, TIIF offers graffiti tours and wine tours. The organization’s website features videos of these projects.
The backbone of TIIF’s work is hands-on internship programs that span social media, filming, wineries, art, and content creation. “The feedback from interns and parents has been that it is a dramatically different experience,” says Bellos. “It is more of an apprenticeship or mentorship. Interns experience every aspect of building a start-up company, which TIIF is. They see management difficulties, revenue generation, negotiation, and film production. Students are thrown into the thick of high-level meetings. It is a powerful experience, giving the next generation what I didn’t get and wanted.
“This generation needs love and support and to be believed in. These kids are lost and tied up in their phones. They are desperate to be treated as adults and given responsibility. They are excited, flattered, and thrilled to be treated as adults.” Participating with Onward Israel, TIIF has become the largest agency providing slots at one location for college interns, Bellos says. “Because of the volume of work we have, interns can stay for any length of time.”
In the summers of 2018 and 2019, Graizbord took students to Israel as part of a study abroad program, “Arizona in Israel.” In 2018 one of the participating students was an intern with TIIF.