The 'Other Mayor' of Tel Aviv Hails From New Jersey

Serial social entrepreneur Jay Shultz styles himself as leader of TA's young international community.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

"I believe every Jew should be in Israel ... yesterday" is one of Jay Shultz's favorite mottos. "Between God, Moses, Ben-Gurion and you - you can build up this nation" is another.

The 35-year-old Zionist propaganda machine and serial social entrepreneur has a lot more where those came from: "America is a sinking ship in terms of Jewish life" is a staple of his chat, often followed by "This is the only home we have - or ever should."

“Between God, Moses, Ben-Gurion, and you - you can build up this nation,” says Jay Shultz.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

"It's an easy win for the Jewish people," you will hear this transplanted New Jersey native saying, more than once, and often in connection with his projects. "What is sexy about Israel is you can still be a pioneer here," he might then continue, thumbing through and handing you one of his array of business cards - each one featuring a different project, logo, design and web site, but all of them featuring the same founder: Jay Shultz.

Shultz runs his fingers through his thick dark hair, throws out statistics on intermarriage in the Diaspora, quotes from former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then from Luke Skywalker, and continues: "What I am about is Kibbutz Galuyot [the ingathering of exiles]," he says, peppering his talk, as he often does, with Hebrew words and phrases when he fears the English won't suffice to get his kavanah [true intention] across.

"JCCs [Jewish Community Centers] all over the U.S. are closing down, enrollment is down in Jewish schools and intermarriage is rampant. It's all getting so diluted," he states, kicking back in his cluttered Tel Aviv apartment, where he is surrounded by antiques, archaeological artifacts, knickknacks and various other random stuff.

(Exhibit A: a massive hairy stuffed boar's head, propped up atop the dryer in the bathroom. "Of course before I made the purchase [of the non-kosher boar's head] I called one of my 1,000 rabbis ... on speed dial, and got permission to acquire it," Shultz notes, as an aside. )

But let's get back to the state of Jewish life in the diaspora.

"The story of American Jewish life today is suicide by assimilation," he says. "And in Europe? It's even worse. If there were a major paradigm shift and this were not the case, I would still be an ideological Zionist but I would be less hyperbolic in my discussion. ... But the situation is dire."

The answer, Shultz claims, is simple: Israel. And, to be more specific: Tel Aviv.

"Tel Aviv is our best chance to save the Jewish people who are living in Chutz L'Aretz [outside of the land, as Israelis call any place in the world not here]," he says. "It's the most enticing place to live in Israel, and I see my job as making it so simple and desirable for internationals to plug in here, that coming and staying will be a no-brainer."

And what would make life in Tel Aviv more desirable and simple for young newcomers from the United States, Europe and beyond? Answer that in any way you choose - networking? socializing? dating? culture? debate? - Shultz, the self-styled "unofficial mayor of international Tel Aviv," is there to provide it.

Need a place to go for Friday night dinner? Shultz's White City Shabbats (www.WhiteCityShabbat.com ) provide company and chicken soup. Hungry for a good lecture in English? His International Salon (www.TLVSalon.com ) series recruits newsmakers of all stripes for debates and lecture evenings. Hankering for some culture? The Arts Council (www.TelAvivArts.com ) has group arts, music and theater performances on offer.

Not enough? Feel the call of army service? What about his www.JoinTheIDF.com, which promises to help newcomers do some army or civil service. And no, "Hamas is not scared because Jay Shultz is recruiting 10,000 to the army," he clarifies, exaggerating the numbers of recruits, for effect. "But American and European Jews need it."

"Many Jews come to Israel, but then leave after a few years ... because of parnassa [livelihood]," explains Shultz, who, when not working pro bono as a one-man alternative Zionism agency, continues to work as a partner in his U.S.-based medical software company and also does real estate in the Galilee. All his social endeavors are nonprofit enterprises, and participants are charged only to cover costs.

"But parnassa is not the only reason people leave," he says. "When I moved here there was a vacuum in young international life. There was nothing in English and no real outlets outside of cafes or clubs. And I thought: If I am going to have the best chance of getting people here, I need to create a cushion for them," he relays. "I needed to build community."

And that he did. The monthly cultural evenings and salons are packed. The Friday night dinners are all booked. A recent tour of the new Tel Aviv museum attracted 500 guests, and a behind-the-scenes evening with the acclaimed Batsheva dance company had 250 well-groomed Tel Avivians sipping white wine and making small talk about choreography in half a dozen languages.

An art history major at Rutgers, with a penchant for partying and traveling the globe, Shultz started getting closer to Judaism and more interested in Israel while living in New York after law school. Soon, he was trading in bacon cheeseburgers for daily tefillin, and eventually, his Union Square apartment for a central Tel Aviv one. "I realized I could have a great life in New York, but no future. I had to break the cycle and just go."

Seven years later, Shultz has yet to take on Israeli citizenship, a curiosity he does not see as particularly noteworthy because, he stresses, he is here to stay. He just hasn't gotten around to it, he shrugs - sort of like learning Hebrew, another seemingly missing piece in the Shultz puzzle that he dismisses as insignificant. "I had no time for ulpan [Hebrew classes]. I am too busy making a substantive contribution to the Jewish people," he retorts.

The secret to Shultz's success, besides Energizer-Bunny-like enthusiasm, relentless confidence and a seemingly depthless pool of new ideas ("I have decided to start a new venture, 'Adopt a Safta' [grandma]. We have a logo already," he announces via e-mail, a few days after the interview ) - is his database.

With some 15,000 e-mail addresses and counting, Shultz seems to know, have access to, or at least know someone who knows practically all the foreign newcomers to Tel Aviv in the 25-40 age range, whether they officially have made aliyah or not, and whether they speak Hebrew as a second language, a third, or not at all. "I am the focal point," he states, "the guy with the largest personal network in Tel Aviv. And between God, Moses, Ben-Gurion and me - I am making a mark."

One can almost hear what he will say next before it passes his lips. "It's really a win-win for the Jewish people."

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