Veterans of Israeli Army’s Elite Code-breaking Unit Are New York’s Best-kept Secret

Some 400 alumni of the IDF's high-tech Unit 8200 are now working in and around Manhattan. They face a unique challenge: Showcasing their skills while maintaining a low profile about their army past

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
New York
The first gala event of Unit 8200 alumni in New York.
The first gala event of Unit 8200 alumni in New York.Credit: Ohad Golub
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
New York

NEW YORK – As I entered the spacious loft on the outskirts of Soho, the initial reception I received was decidedly unfriendly. An Israeli Wall Street veteran, a graduate of the army’s elite technological 8200 unit, asked firmly, “What are doing here? Journalists shouldn’t be here.” Not a particularly warm welcome, especially as I had been formally invited.

This was the inaugural gala event of Unit 8200 vets living in New York. About 400 of them are in the city, I was told – more than anywhere else in the United States. Someone estimated there are a further 200 in Silicon Valley and another 100 in the Boston area.

It’s no surprise that so many 8200 graduates choose New York, since the high-tech and startup industry here is booming and it’s a cool place for high-tech folk to be.

SOSA New York CEO Guy Franklin, whose company offers a gateway into the U.S. high-tech scene and who personally devised a map showing where New York’s Israeli startups are based, says some 350 Israeli-controlled high-tech firms currently operate in the city. These firms range in size from startups to mature companies, and he estimates that about 5,000 Israelis are working in startups here. All of which means there’s a relatively large concentration of 8200 alumni in the Israeli high-tech community.

It’s certainly not unusual to find Israel Defense Forces units raising money in the United States. The leading fundraiser, of course, is the Friends of the IDF, which raises tens of millions of dollars every year, at various events throughout the United States. One of the stars invited here to raise money is “Fauda” star and co-creator Lior Raz, whose TV series is a big hit in Israel and on Netflix. But the gala event differed from the usual gatherings held by 8200 alumni in New York, which normally feature a guest speaker from the unit or a business executive.

The gala evening was nice, for sure, but it wasn’t particularly elegant by New York standards: no tuxedos or flowing evening gowns could be spied anywhere. And, as far as I could tell, no big secrets were being spilled here, either. The conversations were more of the “What’s up?” and “What’s new?” variety.

Making connections

Though the purpose of the gala was to raise money, there was also another, more important, goal – an unusual one for the alumni of IDF units active over here: To try to connect startups and early stage entrepreneurs from 8200 EISP (the Israeli accelerator for Unit 8200 alumni) with clients and venture capital funds in the United States.

There’s no doubt that 8200 alumni living in the United States have connections. Most of them work in high-tech. But some work on Wall Street, some are lawyers, etc. The idea was to take advantage of the connections 8200 alumni may have with the business world, whether that be venture capital funds, high-tech firms, investors, potential clients or any other contact that might help 8200 EISP participants progress.

It’s a really nice idea. Representatives of Israel’s economic delegation in New York also worked to arrange meetings for the 8200 alumni.

The Israeli delegation was led by Sharin Fisher, who heads the 8200 EISP accelerator program in Israel, and she brought together seven representatives of startups, some of whom didn’t even serve in the unit.

The delegation visited New York and Chicago. In addition, another unit alumna, Karen Hershkovits, brought over a group of 12 young women from Israel. The goal was to connect these women, some of them from the tech unit, with female U.S. mentors so that eventually they will become leaders.

The women's delegation from Israel, including former members of Unit 8200, at the event in New York. Credit: Ohad Golub

The two emphasized that their accelerator program is also open to Arab entrepreneurs and teenagers.

My host for the evening was a volunteer called Ohad Golub, and he introduced me to several startup entrepreneurs. One represented a company that produces ecological concrete, while the second safeguards facial shots from identity theft. Impressive stuff. Golub himself didn’t serve in 8200, though; he was a military policeman. He’s here because he has a background in entrepreneurship and wanted to offer his assistance.

He previously created Paparazit – an app that allowed anyone to become a paparazzi and report on celebrities in real time, and also to earn money. “The app was an amazing success,” Golub says. “They talked about us all the time – until they changed the law in the United States and it was forbidden to photograph people for profit without getting written permission from them, so we had to close the app.”

Now he’s trying to help others – not to repeat the mistakes he made, among other things.

Need-to-know basis

Many of the 8200 alumni prefer to keep a low profile. So, with the exception of a few people who I was told didn’t mind having their names published – including Nir Lempert, chairman of the 8200 alumni association, who spoke at the event and is also (well, mainly) CEO of C.Mer Industries; Yariv Nornberg, CEO of the Israeli branch of the Swiss bank Julius Baer; and Gad Gadnir, CEO of Avaya Israel – none of the rest can be mentioned.

Among the unit’s alumni, there are some who think it preferable that former 8200 members in New York maintain a low profile, in order to protect their security and maintain the unit’s secretive image. They are aware that the presence of so many alumni in the Big Apple is hardly a state secret, but there’s no reason to attract excess attention. In any case, they asked me not to take photographs and said photos would be supplied by the organizers. Anyone who didn’t want to be photographed, wasn’t.

And the truth is, the military background of the unit’s alumni is also liable to prompt questions. Israelis living abroad are often perceived as being Mossad agents. We can assume that this is simply not true in over 99 percent of the cases. But 8200 alumni who talk about their past are liable to encounter a reaction accompanied by a mischievous smile: “Ahh you work for the Mossad!” Who needs the hassle?

On the other hand, there’s a big advantage when an alumnus tells people from the business world that he or she served in Unit 8200. It’s certainly likely to impress the people they contact – assuming, of course, these people know what this magic number represents and what the unit does. So when it’s convenient, and it’s useful, they talk about their time in 8200. When it isn’t, or it doesn’t suit the economic or social interest or just the ego, they adhere to the culture of secrecy.

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