Israel’s Ivy Leaguers take to the seas in annual yacht race

Sailing in the Mediterranean provides networking and social opportunity for alumni of top universities, who say they play outsize role in Israeli venture capital, business and politics

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Nine sailing yachts, with crisp white hulls and red lines and trim, slowly motored past Herzliya marina’s rocky pier late Thursday afternoon before unfurling their sails in the Mediterranean. The boats were manned by about 100 graduates of some of the world’s top international universities and were taking part in Israel’s 10th annual Ivy League Yacht Race.

The event, hosted by University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Club in Israel, is one of several yearly events for the loosely organized but influential community, said organizer Dov Hoch.

“The people in the Ivy Leagues, there’s probably about 5,000 of us, and we are at the forefront of the business community, the venture capital community and the tech community in Israel,” said Hoch, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. “This organization informally associates with each other and ultimately we do good things.”

The events give the graduates, about 60 percent of whom are American immigrants and the rest Israelis who moved abroad to study, a social outlet in a familiar environment and a chance to network. Most participants hail from one of the traditional Ivy League schools — the first eight universities established in the United States — although some come from other top international universities, including the University of Oxford and New York University. Columbia University has the largest number of graduates in Israel, about 2,000, followed by Harvard, with roughly 1,500, according to event organizers.

In addition to their role in Israel’s business and technology spheres, some of Israel’s top politicians are Ivy League alumni, including former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who studied at Columbia, current ambassador Ron Dermer and Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, both from the University of Pennsylvania.

The American alumni in Israel focus most of their organized efforts into encouraging current students to visit and consider moving to Israel, and helping them when they arrive, said Hoch, whose company, Clarity Advisors, helps Israeli companies interface with the US market.

“The prime thing we’re active in doing all the time is receiving the young alumni and trying to ensconce them in the business community and get a job and of course if they’re going to the army to get them the right positions in the army,” Hoch said.

The yacht races, galas and other events hosted by alumni groups help new immigrants connect with each other socially as well as find work opportunities, and fit well with Israeli culture’s emphasis on personal connections, said Dalia Levine, who moved to Israel from New York two years ago.

“There’s an element of networking,” said Levine, a chemistry and biomolecular engineering PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a good place to make opportunities and help people too,” Levine said.

American alumni who move to Israel can struggle, both socially and financially, like other immigrants. The hardest experience for most is leaving family, and raising a family in Israel without relatives, Hoch said. Levine said she took a pay cut of about 40 percent after leaving a job at Johnson & Johnson to move to Israel. Other immigrants and alumni associations can help them transition.

For Israelis, studying at Ivy League universities abroad provides them with connections they could not find in Israel, said Daniel Reitblat, who will begin his studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school in August and found the yacht race through Facebook.

“The professors you meet and people in the class are from all over the world. You want to meet those people, connect with them before you go back to Israel,” said Reitblat, who will be entering an MBA program.

Most Israelis at Ivy League universities are studying for their graduate and business degrees, Hoch said.

Reitblat, who served as an officer in the navy and received his bachelor’s degree through the military, said he has several friends working toward MBAs in top US universities. It is a “rising trend” for young Israelis, he said.

Israel’s academia and secondary education is high quality, said Allon Mason, who graduated from Cornell University in 2000. For some fields, though, studying in the US can offer better opportunities, including studying in English and being near major US cities, Mason said.

“Once you’re in the States already if you want to look for a job in New York or Silicon Valley then I think it’s a little easier than having to do that from the other side of the world,” said Mason, who sometimes interviews prospective students for Cornell admissions and says dozens of Israelis apply each year.

Reitblat, who wants to be an entrepreneur in education technology, said Wharton’s proximity to New York and its semester in San Francisco program were two driving factors in his decision to attend the school.

Thursday’s yacht race concluded shortly after sunset. The winning team received a small trophy at a beachside bar adorned with university flags on the Herzliya beach. The winners of the Ivy League Yacht Race hailed from University of Oxford — not actually an Ivy, but no one seemed to mind.

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