At the Macedonia2025 Summit in 2016 we had the pleasure of hosting a Q&A discussion between our Chairman Mr. Robert Arsov, Mr. Gidi Mark – CEO of Birthright Israel and Mr. Dan Oryan – Israel’s Ambassador to Macedonia. The discussion revolved around the topic of how the Jewish diaspora gives back to the country which it sees and feels as the natural and traditional homeland. The focus of the discussion was the Birthright Israel program whose purpose is to enable people of Jewish origin to connect with the country.
The CEO of Birthright, Gidi Mark, has been with the organization since the very start in 1999 and has overseen its amazing stride to success. Birthright, or Taglit in Hebrew, is a ten-day organized trip that participants can take in specific niche areas such as cultural visits, adventure, science, arts and entertainment, culinary, biking and so on. Up to date more than 500,000 young people from 64 countries have participated in the program. Mr. Mark explains that many have established business ties or other cooperation with people and companies in Israel.
A past participant on the program called Gidi Mark to tell him that he is investing in Israel thanks to Birthright and that he wants to donate money to the organization. “This is just one of thousands of people who have made a connection to the country and the culture.” Many people have felt their lives change upon visiting the country. “The real secret,” says Gidi Mark, “is to make people realize how close they are [to one another] despite the fact that they live thousands of miles apart.”
People who connect through the program realize that there is a win-win outcome embedded in the relationship between the residents of Israel and Israelis and Jews around the world. But before Birthright became successful and before Israel became a modern and developed country, its beginnings were humble and life wasn’t easy for those living there. Mr. Mark says that in the beginning many Jews around the world had a difficult time moving to Israel, having realized the many challenges to individual prosperity. “It took Israel 50, 60 years until residents and diaspora began working together.”
This fact alone should give hope to Macedonians around the world that by cooperating with people in Macedonia, this country can become better, stronger and more famous. Mr. Mark states that because many Jews around the world could simply not move to Israel, they decided to support the country by donating money regularly. This helped people, companies and institutions to develop better capacities which enabled them to turn the country into a global leader in innovation and technology.
Just like Macedonia, Israel does not find itself in a pleasant neighborhood and that has placed serious challenges on the prosperity of the country. But despite the circumstances, the Jewish diaspora has always been proactive in supporting people living in Israel. When the Jewish identity outside Israel began to waver under various influences, it was Israel that became the rallying point which helped individuals and communities regain their commitment to their culture and heritage.
According to both Mark and ambassador Oryan, from the 1990’s until 2000, many Jews adopted the words Jewish Existence or Jewish Continuity as codewords to describe the situation. “Everyone went around [looking] for a secret recipe for how to save the Jewish people.” One of those people presented the idea to give a free trip to Israel for young Jews. The idea was funded by two Jewish philanthropists in North America [Charles Bronfman and Michael Steiner] and supported by the then Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Taglit started with a long-term strategic planning done with MkKinsey. The first year there were 10,000 participants from 10 countries. In 2016 40,000 young people came to Israel.
Even though the Macedonian diaspora is not as numerous as the Jewish, there are champions who are eager to play a role in sustaining Macedonia and lifting up the Macedonian people. In the discussion Mr. Oryan stated that Macedonia2025 is a blessing to the government of Macedonia because it brings new people, new ideas and new energy, new perspectives. This is something that Macedonians anywhere in the world should lean on when thinking about the future of the country.
When Birthright started many people thought that the Jewish people in Israel are doomed, but the program articulated to its participants and to the Jewish communities around the world the vision of continuing the existence. “That vision stays the same,” says Gidi Mark, “but with one crucial difference: now, Birthright is about continuing the prosperous existence of the Jewish people.”
What kind of state does Macedonia want to be? Mr. Oryan asks, and goes to add: “If you become something that people want to visit, this is exactly what you need to do. You need to find different programs. There are many other ways, projects, cooperation between communities.” A diaspora community in one country can come to do a project in one part in Macedonia. The idea is to bring people in and create a bond, just like the Israeli example, however, developing that capacity will not be an easy task, even though Macedonia2025 already started the program with the Diaspora Summer Business Trip.
Following the example of Birthright Israel, what the Macedonian communities around the world need to do is locate community leaders and engage people in discussion. Then, once a possible project gets defined, people in the community and all over the world, need to find out about it and support it with money. According to research done by Birthright Israel, 90% of participants come from word of mouth. Once people begin to expand their networks in the Diaspora and connect with people and networks in Macedonia, it will be much easier to undertake various projects, including business cooperation.
Few examples from the Birthright program – Institutions in Israel offer ten week internships to a highly selective group of Ivy league students and graduates in the hi tech industry. This group is mentored by influential people in the industry who become their role models. The participants in this program learn how to develop business and how to be successful investors in Israel. Now there is a community of 250 such individuals who connected through Birthright Israel. About this particular program, Gidi Mark adds: “We don’t do this without two things: Israelis and research. We try to make Israel relevant for the people who visit.”
Mr. Mark makes another great point – you can talk about the past to young people once, twice, five times but not every day. This is an insight that should be understood by Macedonian community leaders who need to look beyond the difficult past, recognize it as something that unites all Macedonians, and put the real focus on ideas and projects that are constructive and that bring value to Macedonia.
“Israel doesn’t offer jobs to the people, it is all about creating the bond” says ambassador Oryan. The bond that Birthright created with the initial supporters of the program enabled the team behind it to make it happen. The first money to Birthright came because of the personal leadership of people. Jewish community leaders went to their friends and asked them to commit money and started with the commitment of 15 people.
This commitment goes back a long time. Jews from Bitola studied agriculture in the 30’s in Israel. When during the first gulf war Iraq dispatched bombs to Israel and caused destruction, Jewish communities around the world rallied and send money ten times the destruction to make a point that Israel is their country too. Universities and Hospitals bear the family names of donors. These institutions have links and cooperate globally. The Mendel family supports a school of leadership in Israel because this famous family decided that education is the key to going forward. Diaspora money supports all of Israel. What Birthright is doing is creating a new level of the bond and is creating a new generation of people committed to Israel.
These are the lessons that we can learn from a successful program in Israel, along with proof of the dedication with which the Jewish communities around the world are working to support the country. As an organization that is promoting business in Macedonia, Macedonia2025 will continue to do its best in realizing its mission and is counting on the help from Macedonians all over the world.
The discussion between Robert Arsov, Gidi Mark and ambassador Oryan can be seen HERE in full.
The author of the text is Martin Anastasovski, Content Developer at Macedonia2025