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Behind the Headlines: U.S. Jews Start Businesses to Help Project Renewal Towns

Jewish entrepreneurs in three U.S. cities have found new ways to help their Jewish federations’ Project Renewal “twin” communities in Israel — business ventures.

Based on a proposal by then-Premier Menachem Begin for a massive housing renovation plan in Israel in 1978, the Project Renewal partnership was developed among the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, residents of Israeli poverty-stricken neighborhoods and diaspora Jewish federations through the United Jewish Appeal.

In essence, the diaspora communities adopted the underdeveloped Israeli communities usually comprising Sephardic immigrants. Eighty-seven of these areas have been transformed through physical renovation and social service programs into clean and safe neighborhoods in which the residents take pride. Through their joint planning, the Israelis and their diaspora helpers have developed new understanding and mutual respect.

For Milwaukee businessmen Bruce Arbit and Jerry Benjamin, a tour of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s “twin” community of Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv, convinced them to start a business there instead of near the Tel Aviv Central Post Office.

Their TDM Integrated Mail Industries, begun last year, is the first letter-shop in Israel, and it performs what was once the work of Arabs and children — sorting and stuffing envelopes — but with state-of-the-art machinery. TDM provides up to 60 jobs.

“According to Maimonides, the highest level of ‘tzedakah’ (charity) is providing a livelihood, making someone self-sufficient,” said Arbit. “Philanthropy alone is not enough.”

By basing itself in Or Yehuda the business faces increased transportation and labor-training costs, but Benjamin said “the emotional gain was worth it … We may have lost the proximity, but we gained so much. Now we have a positive and individual emotional link with our Project Renewal community.”

NEW ELECTRONIC BUSINESS

A similar effort was undertaken last year by David Goldberg with the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland’s “twin” community, Nevah Sharet, on Tel Aviv’s outskirts.

Believing that Nevah Sharet had to expand its economic base in order to thrive independently, he started an electronics and computer hardware component manufacturer there called Nevah Sharet Electronics (NSE).

Initially, NSE faced a very trying period, and two of its original four managers dropped out, But NSE survived and is being purchased by Nevah Sharet residents.

According to Melvin Allerhand, a Cleveland and Israeli resident involved with NSE, “NSE’s implications for Project Renewal and for community-minded investments in Israel are quite significant. The time has come for American Jews to look creatively at the growing small business market within Israel, which is statistically small but communally significant.”

Gary Naiman, who is in the mortgage business in San Diego, had an American-based business idea last year to help the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s Project Renewal community, Kiryat Malachi, west of Jerusalem The federation had fallen $400,000 behind in its $3.2 million commitment to the Israeli town.

Naiman encouraged 14 investors to purchase two Jack in the Box fast food restaurants, promising to send $50,000 a year to Kiryat Malachi from the profits. They now own nine restaurants and will give to Kiryat Malachi and additional 20 percent of the profits from the last four purchased.

Having visited Kiryat Malachi more than a dozen times, Naiman feels close to the community, and he wanted to continue an ongoing relationship. “I can actually see, touch and feel what we’ve done,” he said.

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