The Column | Your dollars in Israel making world better

I spent last Sunday at Israel in the Gardens, San Francisco’s yearly celebration of our Jewish community and its connection to Israel. It was a glorious day and the atmosphere was appropriately festive. Israeli music rang out from the stage, speakers congratulated the Jewish state on its 65th birthday, and many local Jewish organizations were on hand to hawk their wares and tout their programs (hope you stopped by j.’s booth to say hello).    

But this year the most intriguing part of the festival lay on its margins — and I don’t mean just the jewelry vendors, although I did my usual damage in that regard. I’m talking about two programs that showcased the best new Jewish talent, at home and abroad.

First, Innovation Alley, a lineup of booths and tables that housed about a dozen high-tech and nonprofit startups from Israel and the Bay Area. This was the brainchild of Adam Swig, whom we profiled in our May 24 issue — the grandson of longtime philanthropist Roselyne “Cissie” Swig and, at 24, someone who is on the rise in Jewish philanthropic circles.  He brought these entrepreneurs together in one space where they could meet potential investors, as well as future employees, and show the public some of the amazing work going on in social action and technology.

There were plenty of gadgets, some fairly geeky and others dedicated to making simple tasks less cumbersome. I was drawn in by the Foldimate, a device about the size of an office copy machine that folds a piece of clothing in 15 seconds. Who doesn’t need that?

“What do you hate to fold more, your shirts or your underwear?” asked Gal Rosov, who created the prototype five years ago in Israel.

“I don’t fold my underwear,” said the young man staring quizzically at the machine. “Exactly!” Rosov exclaimed. “That’s why we made it for shirts.”

Winner of the Roselyne C. Swig Tikkun Olam Innovation Prize — and $2,013 contributed by Adam and his brother Benjamin in her honor — was Feeding Forward, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that links up folks who have leftover food with organizations that need it. Explained co-founder and Cal grad Andrew Finch, 24, “Use our mobile app to tell us where you are and what you’ve got — we have an algorithm that tells you who needs it near you, and we dispatch a volunteer to pick it up.” The program is working already in Berkeley and Oakland.

Later that afternoon, in a circle of chairs under a tree, I met up with the heads of two of the 40 Israeli nonprofits supported by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which gave $2.5 million last year to groups working to make Israel a better place.

In the black hat and long jacket of a Hassid was Rabbi Yisroel Hofrichter, director of Shachar Chadash (New Dawn), which integrates haredi men into the Israeli military and gives them job training for the future. Supported by the Joint Distribution Committee as well as the S.F. federation (which gave them $180,000 this past year), Shachar Chadash has helped more than 2,500 ultra-Orthodox men serve in the military while remaining within their communities.

“It’s hard for them,” Hofrichter explained. Because the Israeli military is so secular, he said, “those who went to the army were considered dropouts; it was hard for them to get [married]. Five years ago at the beginning of our work, the guys didn’t want to wear their uniforms in their neighborhoods — they’d change clothes when they got off the bus.”

Today, he says, the haredi soldiers wear their IDF uniforms proudly. “People see they are respectable — and they’re making money.”

I also spoke with Yifat Ovadya, founder of Olim B’Yachad, which matches young Ethiopian Israeli college graduates with mentors in top-notch Israeli companies who help them find employment in their fields. Tired of seeing these well-educated young people working as security guards, Ovadya went out and did something about it — with our community’s financial help ($100,000 last year). Already 600 young people have found good jobs through her program, “so we can be the Jewish and democratic state we want to be,” she said.

That’s money well spent.

And to the anti-Israel protestors marching outside the festival, this year as always, I have this to say: Look at what we’re doing, in Israel and at home, to make the world better. Open your eyes.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].