First ‘Birthright for business executives’ trip takes in Israel

Where a program that sponsors college students’ visits to the Holy Land leaves off, the AlmaLinks group aimed at entrepreneurs steps in

Members of the recent AlmaLinks tour to Israel at an event in Tel Aviv (Courtesy)
Members of the recent AlmaLinks tour to Israel at an event in Tel Aviv (Courtesy)

The Birthright program has brought more than half a million young adults to Israel on intense 10-day visits. To replicate that experience for members of the business world, AlmaLinks, a group focused on promoting ties between the global Jewish business community and Israel, has started sponsoring its own Birthright-style trip, bringing business executives to Israel to meet their local counterparts.

“Despite nearly two decades of Birthright, the program that brings college-age students to Israel to get to know the country, the large majority of American Jews have never visited Israel, and even with the reputation of the Start-Up Nation, there are many in the tech and business community who are not familiar with what we do here. They have missed out on brand Israel,” said AlmaLinks founder, business executive Tomer Sapir.

“Through AlmaLinks activities including parlor meetings, lectures, social events, and now organized tours, we try to instill and promote a positive relationship between the two sides.”

AlmaLinks started out five years ago as an informal network of Israeli and US young executives who were looking for a way to keep the friendships they had made in Israel alive. Today, AlmaLinks is a network of over 600 outstanding young CEOs and executives in 10 global chapters. It is led by businesspeople and financiers who decided to form an organization focused on Israel and the Jewish people.

The guest list at a typical AlmaLinks event is a who’s who of the Israeli business community. One recent event included over 50 CEOs and founders of some of the largest high-tech startups in the country, and similar events in the US, South Africa, and other places where the group is active hosted a similarly accomplished list of guests.

“For 60% of our members, AlmaLinks is the first Israeli or Jewish organization they have been involved with, and many of our unaffiliated members haven’t been able to make it to Israel yet due to the heavy workload that comes with building a business,” said Sapir. “AlmaLinks fills that gap, providing opportunities to meet with and connect to like-minded Israelis, and come face-to-face with the business leaders who are driving the Israeli economy.”

Tomer Sapir (Courtesy)
Tomer Sapir (Courtesy)

Last month, AlmaLinks sponsored its first Diaspora delegation visit to Israel. The group saw the sights — Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People; the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim; the Western Wall — as well as the inner workings of several startups, with participants (who are in the tech business themselves) getting a first-hand look at how Israeli firms operate.

Among the executives the group met with were Ziv Aviram, CEO and founder of Mobileye, Haim Neerman, founder of Credorax and FabrixTV, Noam Shomron, founder of Variantyx, a cutting-edge genome diagnostic company; and Yaron Ben Shaul, CEO of Vernet and Hometalk.

For some participants, AlmaLinks programs are a transformative experience. Amanda Bresler of PW Communications, one of the largest business development and proposal writing firms on the East Coast, said that, having been raised in a Reform household in suburban Washington, “I had no real Jewish network to speak of. While I had never had any strong desire to visit Israel, I was nearing the end of my eligibility for Birthright and figured that, given I already had the time off, I may as well take advantage. I went on Birthright in December 2014, and while I was in Israel, I quickly recognized that the country has an amazing energy and ability to produce brilliant solutions.”

Bresler decided that her company needed to be active in Israel, but had no idea how to proceed – until she got involved in AlmaLinks.

The group, she said, “has connected me to hundreds of people around the world, who I count among not only my business contacts but also my personal friends. AlmaLinks ‘shows’ Israel to a group of people who, in many instances, are otherwise disconnected from the country. As a Jew who lives in the Diaspora, I know firsthand how easy it is to live well and productively, without ever engaging in Israel. The other organizations I would come across in New York and elsewhere in the US try to bring you into the ‘fold’ in Israel, by leading with a religious message. That message works for some, but not for a growing population of American Jews — Jews, like me, who are largely secular and are more likely to derive a meaningful connection to Israel through business/networking opportunities.”

For Israeli members, AlmaLinks brings a refreshing change to the usual connection that they have with Disapora Jews. Israeli business magnate Victor Vaisleib said, “’Old-school’ Israeli groups plead with American Jews to either make aliyah or to donate money, and both approaches have long been controversial and polarizing. In fact, in the 21st century they’re simply irrelevant. Israel as a springboard for young leaders at their career prime is a value-based concept that makes a lot of sense in today’s environment.”

Long-term, it remains to be seen what the real effect of AlmaLinks will be on Israel-Diaspora business ties, said Vaisleb, but Sapir is optimistic. “What AlmaLinks provides is the platform, at a local and a global level, to grow and sustain that spark of excitement about Israel’s business, high-tech, and entrepreneur community. Our aim is to foster that excitement among the talented young professionals who, as they take up leadership positions in their industries, will keep in mind Israel and the Jewish community.”

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