Michigan’s New Israel Investment

Pioneering university group banking on novel ties to state.

12/02/09
Staff Writer
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At 1:45 a.m. on a recent weeknight, a group of 27 Jewish students gathered in the main auditorium at University of Michigan’s Hillel. Instead of breaking out the beer, they video-conferenced with Nir Elperin, vice president of Arba Finance, a venture capital firm in Tel Aviv.

A split-screen projected on the wall featured a PowerPoint presentation on one side and Elperin on the other, talking in real time about the venture capital and high-tech industry in Israel, as well as various ways in which startups secure funding.

Elperin then fielded questions from the group. “Which industries in Israel will maintain a competitive advantage in the next decade?” one student asked.

Elperin suggested that the students keep a close watch on Israel’s communications, defense, Internet and life sciences sectors.

This pre-dawn meeting was organized by the Tamid Israel Investment Group (www.tamidgroup.org), a pioneering student-led initiative at the University of Michigan that connects a pluralistic group of business-minded students with Israeli entrepreneurs and investors.

Founded two years ago by students Eitan Ingall (a former fellow in the social entrepreneur incubator PresenTense) and Sasha Gribov, Tamid was a response to the increasing number of Israel divestment campaigns on campus. It offers a new model of Jewish connection to Israel on campus that is quickly gaining traction and attracting the interest of other students. The group provides college students a new way of advocating for Israel, one that has nothing to do with initiating dialogues with Palestinians on campus or bringing Alan Dershowitz to campus.

“Tamid allows young Jewish Americans to get an in-depth understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the Israeli economy,” Elperin told The Jewish Week. “For students, the sessions with Israeli businessmen provide them with firsthand perspectives and therefore tighten their relationship with Israel based on information and insights that are more relevant to their own careers.”

In Hebrew, Tamid means “always” or “eternal,” and those involved say that this new model may well be the most practical way to create a sustainable, lasting bond between the next generation and the future of the Israeli people.

Tamid fills a void, said 21-year-old Garrett Levenbrook, who grew up in Wayne, N.J., and is now a co-founder and director of programming for the group.

“I could have joined a religious, cultural or political group related to Israel,” said Levenbrook. But, “Tamid is different from other Israel advocacy or Jewish groups on campuses.”

Many of the students who devote between 20 to 35 hours per week to Tamid have never stepped inside a Hillel and have no other connection to Israel as a Jewish state.

“It’s harder than ever for Jewish students to see the relevance of Israel to their lives,” said Brett Siegal, a junior at the University of Michigan and Tamid’s vice president of fundraising. “They’re missing a huge piece of the picture. One of the things that makes Israel so great is that it is one of the most dynamic, advanced economies in the world.”

The Tamid Israel Engagement Program has three components. Freshmen participate in weekly seminars with Israeli traders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, some of whom visit campus and others, such as Nir Elperin, who participate via video conference. A select group of students in their second, third and fourth semesters of college participate in weekly “Huddle Sessions” in which students work pro bono on consulting projects for Israeli startups.

The culmination of the program is the Tamid Fellowship, in which students gain work experience and a taste of the Israeli economy by interning for Israeli startups over the summer. This summer, the group has raised money to send four members to Israel as part of this fellowship.

Another component of the club is its Israel Investment Fund. Until now, students have managed a virtual portfolio of Israeli stocks listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and cross-listed on the NASDAQ. They’re hoping to invest real funds soon, but first they need to raise them. “We’re building up a small portfolio of $10,000 and have set fundraising goals for each student,” said Siegal.

The money will likely come from friends and family who believe in their mission, and not big funders, he said. “It wasn’t a salient pitch for us to go to big donors and say, ‘Donate $10,000 for us students to gain experience playing with your money.’” Two weeks into the fundraising campaign, students have already raised well over $2,000.

Operating on a shoestring budget, Tamid has recruited 65 students as members and has filed for its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Its vision, however, is far bigger. The group aims to engage college students around the country with Israel and have a presence at every major American university with a large Jewish presence and a business school, “similar in scale to Birthright,” said first-year student Allison Berman.

Michael Brooks, the longtime executive director of the University of Michigan Hillel, praised Tamid, which recently became a Hillel-sponsored organization, meaning it now receives staff and fundraising support from Hillel.

“They happen to be a very remarkable group of students,” Brooks, said. “If they were to issue an IPO in themselves right now, I would want to buy shares.”

To scale up, though, the entirely volunteer-based organization will need an infusion of cash. At the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Washington, D.C., last month, members of Tamid set up “constant meetings with grant-making foundations, wealthy philanthropists and Israel advocacy organizations.”

They were happy to hear the remarks offered by Joe Kanfer, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America board of trustees, in which he cited engaging the young with Judaism and the federation system, as well as embracing innovative ideas, as top goals. But they say they want to see proof of this commitment.

“There’s a huge disconnect between the federation movement and students our age,” said Siegal. “It has almost no direct relevance on our lives. The established organizations are starting to realize this. Instead of creating programs and forcing them on students and hoping they’ll buy in, we hope they’ll support organizations that already exist and help make them more successful.”

Even Tamid’s members who are graduates of Jewish day schools and yeshivas and have traveled to Israel several times before say that the group’s innovative approach deepens their connection to Israel through its strong economic focus.

“I went to a Jewish day school, so I’ve always had a strong connection to Israel,” said David Rosenwein, a Michigan freshman who grew up in Springfield, N.J., and visited Israel with his high school, Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School. Still, “Tamid really gave me an outlet for a new kind of relationship with the land of Israel,” he says.

Having spent a gap-year studying in Israel, Avi Wolf, a sophomore at Michigan’s College of Engineering who hails from Scarsdale, said it’s easy to let his connection to Israel slack off. “Tamid is a great way to not only prevent that, but also increase my connection in a different way.”

Tamid is the sole organization on campus that has a “physical hand in Israel,” he said. “By both sending student there and promoting investments in Israel’s economy, it is encouraging a more physical connection with Israel that one cannot find elsewhere.”

The group’s founders say that they’ve received interest in bringing the program to the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brandeis and McGill, among others. The overall demand is encouraging, Tamid’s founders say.

“I think we’ve hit upon something with huge growth potential,” said Levenbrook. “Because our cause is so important to the future of the business relationship between American Jewry and Israel, it’s a message and mission that’s inspiring and meaningful to Jews all over the world.”

 

Last Update:

12/02/2009 - 12:07

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