In just over two years, the One Family Fund has raised more than $7.5 million, providing support to some 1,800 individuals and families who have been victims of terrorism in Israel. But the head of One Family, Jerusalem-based multimillionaire businessman Marc Belzberg, says that his organization does much more than simply offer money; it also offers a human touch.
"There's a need for a human face to relate to every case based on individual needs," says Belzberg. "We take care of them in a very personal way. We are their family."
The idea behind One Family came from Belzberg's own family and its reaction to the Jerusalem Sbarro restaurant bombing on August 9, 2001, which killed 14 people, many of them children. The family was vacationing in Palm Springs, Florida at the time, and had been planning to throw a big party for his 12-year-old daughter Michal's bat mitzvah on their return to Israel. But After hearing of the attack, the family decided to cancel the party and donate the $100,000 planned for the event to victims of the attack. "It shook everybody," Belzberg says. "When kids your own age are getting murdered, how can you throw a party?"
After researching how best to give money to victims, Belzberg realized that there were many problems that money alone could not address, and that there were gaps in the government aid system for terror victims, which sometimes left them without support, both financial and emotional.
So what Belzberg sought to do was to provide a human element to giving aid, branching out the family's original plan of making a one-time donation to create a permanent support structure for victims of terrorism. Today One Family's employees and volunteers provide that face-to-face support network, delivering checks in person and organizing events and trips for bombing survivors, while Jews from all over the world provide the financial support.
"World Jewry was looking for a channel to help these people, and we provided that channel," Belzberg says.
Connecting the world's Jewish population to Israel has been a mission for Belzberg in recent years, a religiously observant Orthodox Jew who moved to Israel in 1991 after years in North America working in business. Belzberg grew up in Canada, son of businessman Sam Belzberg, one of the richest men in the country. He lived a predominantly secular life, even after spending a year attending high school in Netanya, after which he says he returned to Vancouver with "a negative attitude towards Israel and Israelis in general."
But it was when he returned to Canada that Belzberg met a local rabbi, Pinky Bak, doing outreach to the Jewish community, who quickly taught him about Jewish history and religion and led him to decide to become religiously observant. "He had a major impact on my life," Belzberg says. "I became enthusiastic about Zionism."
Belzberg ended up back in Israel to study for a year at the Gush Etzion yeshiva. "I saw a whole different side of Israel, a whole different attitude, of people filled with optimism, and support for each other," he says.
He returned to North America, where after receiving his business degree from New York University, Belzberg worked for various companies before going to work for his father. Over the 1980's, the younger Belzberg made a fortune through leveraged buyouts of companies and timely investments in areas such as cellular phone licenses.
But the pull of Israel was too strong. Belzberg says he saw Israel as the "future center stage" for Judaism, and that he was simply waiting for the right moment to move to Israel permanently so he could devote more time to Judaism. In 1991, he, his wife, and their three children all under the age of four at the time, moved to Israel permanently. "Our life is symbolic of the rebirth of the Jewish nation," Belzberg says.
Belzberg had to undergo a career rebirth as well, as he moved from venture capital to the newly emerging and unfamiliar high-tech field. He made numerous investments in various companies, some of which are no longer in existence after the high-tech boom fizzled. He is currently the CEO of e-SIM, which produces simulation software that allows users to create Web-based "virtual product" presentations, as well as interactive training software.
But the many successful business ventures Belzberg has had in Israel and abroad have been secondary in recent years to his desire to become deeply rooted in his religious and Zionist beliefs, and to spread those beliefs to other Jews. "This is the first time Jews are dribbling back here from all corners of the earth," Belzberg says of the last 50 years, citing that today Israel for the first time has the largest population of Jews of any country, moving ahead of the United States.
He and his wife have helped expand that population with their own family; the couple has seven children, ranging from 16 years old to eight months. "One of the responsibilities we have is to replenish our ranks," the 48-year-old Belzberg says matter-of-factly.
Besides heading One Family, Belzberg serves as the chairman of Bnei Akiva, the largest Jewish youth organization in the world. He is also the chairman of MiBreishit - the Foundation for Jewish Renaissance, an organization that Belzberg says has the vision of "changing the fabric and intellectual and emotional psyche of Israel" by making its population more "rooted in its traditions, tolerant of one another, proud of our history and contribution to the world." "We're making Torah relevant for today's generation," says Belzberg of the group.
In a way, the goals of Bnei Akiva and MiBreishit are similar to those of One Family, which also seeks to strengthen Jewish unity both in Israel and abroad. But One Family responds to the unique challenge posed by terrorism against Israelis. Belzberg holds strong opinions on the subject, saying that the Jewish state should not be willing to give in to terrorist actions.
"If you begin the day with the premise that any terror is intolerable, then you begin the day with a different perspective on what needs to be done," Belzberg says. "We have to fight terror with vigilance."
He criticizes the current government for being willing to discuss releasing Palestinian prisoners from jail with groups like Hezbollah, when some recent suicide bombers had been let go from Israeli jails. "This country has a long history of not learning from mistakes," he says. "We can't allow terrorism to buy a seat at the negotiating table." Belzberg is also a strong supporter of settlements in the territories, saying that he doesn't believe "there should be any neighborhood in the world were Jews should not be allowed to buy a house."
On a broader level, Belzberg questions the lack of direction provided by the country's recent leaders. "The country is in a state of national depression ... What this country badly needs is inspirational leadership," Belzberg says. "There hasn't been a clear message about anything in a long time." He hopes that the organizations that he heads will provide some of that leadership to the world's Jewish population to help them "rediscover themselves." "What's important to me is that Jewish people as a whole wake up each morning with a sense of pride, a sense of awareness of their unique identity and inheritance," Belzberg says.