As one of 130 local community members who readied themselves to embark on an eight-day journey across the state of Israel with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on May 30, I thought about what I would see, experience and bring back with me.
Throughout our trip, we saw a nation and a people with tremendous resilience. Visiting Israel at the tail end of Operation Shield and Arrow, I could see how Israelis have the capacity to withstand both physical and emotional adversity but, at the same time, possess the passion for evolving, inventing and improving.
We heard from innovators of all ages who testified about their culture rooted in a love of learning but empowered to experiment and think outside the box. The culture dictates that no task is too daunting, and Israelis can and will find solutions for the most complex problems – from defending the state and its people to running a fruitful agricultural business in the desert.
At the Shimon Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa, we studied the traits that enabled the top 100 innovators to make groundbreaking discoveries in a country no larger than New Jersey. Innovations discussed were water desalination, drip irrigation in agriculture, cellphones, Waze, self-driving technology and eyesight for those with macular degeneration.
Innovators spoke about their secret sauce in these discoveries. Each conversation circled back to the idea of failing fast and often, and how failures led them to further discoveries, as the fires of creativity spurred them forward. This determination to survive and create were dominant traits.
Beyond the individual inventors, Israel’s diverse makeup collectively supports and promotes cutting-edge innovation by creating a space with endless perspectives and insights into everyday issues and how to solve them.
Diversity is the country’s backbone. Israel is the ultimate melting pot with people from Morocco to Ethiopia, the U.S., and virtually every country in Eastern and Western Europe. It’s these diverse worldviews that, despite its tiny population of only 9.3 million people, make Israel third in the world for the number of start-ups (after only the U.S. and China) and first in invested capital per capita.
Our visit to Netivot, the sister city to our community in Greater Philadelphia, deepened our understanding of the country’s vast cultural diversity. Netivot is located within 10 kilometers of Gaza and was settled by Ethiopian refugees after Operation Moses, the daring rescue operations of the IDF in 1984 and 1985.
Netivot today stands in stark contrast to when I first visited on a Jewish Federation mission more than 20 years ago. It was a sleepy, dusty, under-secured, impoverished and ignored town at that time. But when our bus pulled in last month, I saw a lake, beautiful hills, first-class recreational facilities and a stage for performances, all surrounded by high-quality housing. Olim from France and the former Soviet Union have arrived and are raising their families in Netivot, adding diversity and spice to the community.
Over the past 25 years, the Jewish Federation has invested more than $15 million and an unquantifiable amount of love into the Netivot and Sdot Negev regions, transforming the area and fostering deep connections with the Greater Philadelphia community. Netivot’s population is expanding, but it retains its multicultural character, a testament to the Jewish Federation’s vision of what that region could become.
The Negev represents 60% of the land of Israel and only 15% of its people. It is within the “Green Line,” and thus is considered legitimate by many around the world. As a result, the Israeli government is using technology to attract people to the region.
Considered the hub of the Negev, Be’er Sheva houses a high-tech zone where many local and international tech companies reside. This park is home to companies like WIX, the world’s largest provider of websites, and the IDF’s elite cybersecurity unit.
Young soldiers, both men and women, presented a PowerPoint to us that was so sophisticated that any top corporation in the world would recruit them for a leadership role. It’s remarkable to think that 30 years ago, this area was a craggy, barren desert, and now it houses a modern tower filled with companies charting our future. These headquarters attract the best and brightest youth of Israel.
Our travels continued, and we visited various places and met with all types of people: from visiting an agricultural Kibbutz on the border with Gaza whose residents seek to mend relations between Jews and Arabs to meeting with top IDF women commanders who manage large army bases as well as their teenage children with apparent ease.
When our group returned to Philadelphia, we were bonded by the love of the Jewish people and our homeland. One cannot help but be struck by the daily interplay of ancient traditions meeting the new. Nowhere else can we press our foreheads into the ancient stones at the Western Wall of the Kotel, leave awash with emotion, and moments later meet with the thinkers and doers shaping what our future will look like in the decades to come.
Israeli life and society have multiple dimensions. This incredible mission left all of us brimming with awe and wanting to come back again to experience more of this complex, wonderful nation.
Sherrie R. Savett is an executive shareholder, chair emerita at the Berger & Montague, P.C. law firm; a past president and board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; and a member of its board of directors and trustees.