Thinking Outside the Jewish People

Zionist youth movement inspires alumni to engage in global activism. The second installment of a three-part series.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

How's this for an ambitious plan? Enlisting the 14 million Jews in Israel and the Diaspora to improve the lives of a quarter of a billion disadvantaged people around the world, all within the next decade.

The Alliance for Global Good, a U.S.-based nonprofit, thinks it's doable, and to get the ball rolling it has teamed up with the Reut Institute, a strategic policy group in Tel Aviv. The idea behind their recently unveiled "21st Century Tikkun Olam" program is to get Jews around the world to contribute their know-how and expertise in areas like neo-natal health and infant mortality, de-desertification, food and water security, and entrepreneurship, all in the name of guaranteeing a better world for coming generations. And why not gain a few much-needed Brownie points for Israel in the process?

David Brand, the executive director of The Alliance for Global Good, is among a growing list of Young Judaea youth movement graduates who are putting the emphasis on olam (Hebrew for "world" ) in the type of tikkun olam ("repairing the world" ) work they do. They join a long list of Young Judaeans who have gained prominence as social, environmental and human rights activists in Israel - in fact, they have become some of the biggest names in these fields in recent years.

"I can't think of anything in my life that has been as much as a catalyst in what I do as my involvement in Young Judaea," says Brand. "I think the essence of the movement is being a 'light unto the nations,' and this program, which is certainly an audacious vision, is all about that."

Brand was president of Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States, when he was 18 years old. He was recently appointed to the newly formed Young Judaea board set up last month after the organization gained its independence from Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, under whose wings it had operated for 70 years.

"The Young Judaea ethos of involvement at a very young age, I believe, explains its unparalleled success," observes Brand.

Established five years ago, the Alliance for Global Good has been involved, through various strategic partnerships in the United States and Israel, in initiatives as diverse as establishing neo-natal clinics in Ghana, training mixed Jordanian-Israeli emergency medical teams to respond to earthquakes, and encouraging women in America to run for political office.

Anne Heyman, another Young Judaean, was also trying to build on Israeli know-how and expertise when she came up with her idea for a tikkun olam project that targets the world's downtrodden: a youth village in Rwanda for children orphaned during or after the 1994 genocide. The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, set up in 2006, was inspired by the youth aliyah villages set up in Israel to accommodate the many orphans who arrived here after having lost their entire families in the Holocaust. The Yemin Orde youth village near Haifa was the specific model for Agahozo-Shalom.

Agahozo is the Kinyarwanda word for "tears are dried," and the name of the village, according to its website, "is intended as a reminder of the success of similar efforts in Israel, where genocide also changed the face of the nation." Heyman's initiative has been featured both on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and in a profile in the Wall Street Journal.

Ruthie Sobel is another Young Judaean who has dedicated herself to helping disadvantaged children. In 2005, she established Birthday Angels, a nonprofit that funds and organizes birthday parties for poor and sick children in Israel. She is now trying to take the idea to the United States.

"We're now registered as a nonprofit in the United States, and we're looking for an organization to pilot this," says Sobel. "What we'll need is to translate our birthday kits into English."

The seeds for Birthday Angels were planted when Sobel was 17 years old and on a Young Judaea summer program in Israel working with young children in one of Tel Aviv's low-income neighborhoods. "I met a girl there named Malka, who asked me what my ethnicity was. I had no idea what she was talking about. So I asked her when her birthday was, and she told me she didn't know. The birthday is such an important day in a child's life, it was hard for me believe there could be a child who didn't know when hers was."

Since 2005, Sobel, working with a group of 1,000 volunteers around the country, has arranged for almost 17,000 birthday parties for children who otherwise would not have them. "It all came from my incubation in Young Judaea," she says. "It's what programmed me for my life's work."

Emergency medical responders training in the Arava.Credit: Courtesy AFGG