There’s the slow and steady approach to growth, and then there’s the Israeli American Council (IAC). In September, the Woodland Hills-based nonprofit, whose overarching mission is to cultivate a strong community of Israeli-American and American Jews committed to supporting Israel, announced an expansion into eight new cities over the next five years, a move made possible by a $5 million grant pledged by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. Just a few months later, it already has opened offices in Miami, Boston, New York and, this past month, Las Vegas.
As IAC CEO Sagi Balasha explained, “Everything we do the Israeli way. There is a saying that Americans think about what is the strategy and [then] do the action. The Israelis do the action and then think about what is the strategy. This symbolizes a lot the way Israelis do things. It’s an ADHD culture. You act. You do. You cannot wait until tomorrow. You are rushing like someone is chasing you. It comes a lot from the Israeli army mentality: doing things fast and strong.”
The group was founded in 2007 by some of the most savvy and successful Israeli-American businesspeople in Los Angeles, several of whom serve on the very active board. Board members not only put in many hours each week doing outreach, they also each donate $5,000 annually to the organization, and often much more. And while the IAC is a labor of love, it is in many ways operated like a Fortune 500 company.
“We’re very business oriented,” Balasha said. We check the social ROI [return on investment] for everything we do.” Furthermore, the IAC has had seven years to hone its robust model here in Los Angeles, making it relatively easy to replicate in other cities eager for the same. In each new city it has entered, the IAC starts by building a lay leadership and forming a local council that supports the mission both in word and action. Only then is a staff hired.
The IAC also has seen tremendous growth locally. Balasha estimates that of the approximately 200,000 Israeli-Americans living in Los Angeles — the largest population outside of Israel — some 75,000 interface with the group.
Celebrate Israel, the IAC’s most high-profile event, will take place May 18 in Rancho Park. Now in its third year as part of the IAC, it is hoping to draw 20,000 people, up from 15,000 last year. The theme of this year’s festival is “Tour of Israel.” Attendees will have the opportunity to put notes in a faux Western Wall and “visit” the Sea of Galilee and Tel Aviv, among other destinations. Balasha is quick to point out that Israeli-Americans and American Jews are equally represented at the festival, which is just how the IAC likes it. The organization aims to be inclusive. Nearly all of its programming is in English.
This summer, the IAC is debuting two new programs in Los Angeles. The first is a two-week youth summer camp, partially subsidized for all campers — with swimming, hiking and kayaking — at Camp Gilboa in the San Bernardino Mountains, which will be conducted in Hebrew. It is open to children ages 9-15 who already have some fluency in the language. Traveling to Israel in the summertime can be too expensive for some Israeli-Amercan families, so the IAC is aiming to “create a small Israel in California,” Balasha said.
The second debut takes place June 17, when the Israel-based Hallelujah Singing Competition comes to Los Angeles. That night, the IAC is sponsoring the 2014 North American semifinals at The Mark on Pico Boulevard. Balasha likens Hallelujah to the “American Idol of the Jewish world.” The winner will travel to Israel to compete against a group of international contestants.
Also on the horizon is an ambitious online social network, IACircles.com, scheduled to launch this summer. “Our goal is to get to every Israeli-American that lives in the United States,” IAC board chair and co-founder Shawn Evenhaim said. “[The site] will have all the data you need. It will be loaded with a lot of programs and resources. For example, if you have kids and they don’t want to go to Sunday school but you want to do something with them, we will create a program so you can download a Hebrew class. There will be a concierge service to ask questions.
“If you want to do anything related to Jewish activities — a show or concert, do a Shabbat dinner or something — people will be able to share information and build friendships. This will be basically the way we connect everyone across the country. It will be free to users. This is why we believe, too, everyone will join it,” Evenhaim said.
The rapid growth of the IAC into additional markets as well as the new initiatives are not without a human cost — staff and board members often put in long hours. But, according to Evenhaim, “None of them see it as a job. They see it as a mission.”
Ultimately, he added, “It’s not about the IAC. It’s about the community. If we all put Israel in the center, everything will work out.”
The IAC hosts events throughout the city, including the upcomiong Celebrate Israel Festival on May 18 at Rancho Park. Here’s what’s on the horizon in the San Fernando Valley:
Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) Ceremony (in collaboration with MATI Israeli Community Center)
Valley Beth Shalom, Encino / 4 p.m.
Shavuot on the Kibbutz
Woodley Park, Van Nuys / 10 a.m.
Woodley Park, Van Nuys / 11 a.m.
Main photo: The Israeli American Council board of directors, from left: Yossi Rabinovitz, Tamir Cohen, Naty Saidoff, Adam Milstein, Miri Shepher, Shawn Evenhaim, Danny Alpert, Shoham Nicolet and CEO Sagi Balasha. Photo by Joseph Pal