Profile: Yossi I. Abramowitz
This Jewish educator-cum-businessman’s latest venture is refashioning peoplehood: His vision is to elicit hope, optimism and possibility for Jews in a life-affirming way.
Yoda, the venerated Jedi master, peers out from the background of Yossi Abramowitz’s computer, faintly resembling a wizened, green-skinned David Ben-Gurion. “Yoda minds his own business in the wilderness, learning and training the next generation,” says Abramowitz. “Every once in a while he’s called out to fight a special battle.” He adds, slightly tongue-in-cheek, “It’s my dream future job description.”
Wearing blue shorts, white shirt, black sneakers and a crocheted kippa atop his sandy-colored hair, Abramowitz still looks like the Young Judaea camper he once was. But at 42, the activist and investigative-journalist-turned-CEO is now engaged in training the next generation through the network of over 25 transdenominational and entrepreneurial projects that make up Jewish Family & Life! (JFL)—the nonprofit organization he and his wife founded in 1996.
His online communities, he says, log over 11 million individual page visits annually. Babaganewz, a glossy magazine for grades 4-7 used in 3,500 classrooms nationwide, was named best educational supplement last year by the Association of Educational Publishers, beating out Sesame Street Magazine. A plethora of other online and print publications range from the teen journal Jvibe to www.jbooks.com, for book reviews and news, and www. socialaction.com, a resource for tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Last year, in a partnership with the global young leadership group Kol Dor, Abramowitz rallied the Israeli Knesset, the American Congress, the British House of Commons and other organizations to name the Hebrew month of Heshvan (October 23 to November 21 this year) Jewish Social Action Month (Hadassah has now signed on). This past spring, JFL received a major grant to oversee the Koret International Jewish Book Awards, with Abramowitz as chair. And Israeli President Moshe Katzav recently appointed Abramowitz to the World Jewish Forum, a new gathering to chart innovative directions in Jewish life.
In August, Abramowitz left his job in Newton, Massachusetts, to begin a two-year stint at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert, not incidentally founded by former Young Judaeans. With a myrtle bush and fig, date and pomegranate trees blooming around his new home, he will be recasting his role in the Jewish community and writing a book tentatively titled Peoplehood With Purpose.
Perhaps most important, he has chosen to devote time to his family—his wife, rabbi and writer Susan Silverman, 43, and their five children, two of whom, Adar and Zamir, were adopted from Ethiopia (Zamir’s birth parents both died from AIDS).
“I received a Covenant Award for being an ‘exceptional Jewish educator,’” explains Abramowitz, “but my own children’s educators and counselors were saying to me, ‘Your children need more of your time.’”
Unfortunately, he adds, unfounded rumors that he was fired tempered his decision with bitterness. “Instead of delight that as a parent I was making a family-friendly decision,” he says, “much of the feedback was, ‘What really happened?’”
Abramowitz remains as concerned with the future of the Jewish people as with the well-being of his own family. On his last official day at the helm of JFL, he articulates his grandiose vision: “My goal is to provide sources of hope, optimism and possibility for the Jewish people, to get past the ‘same old’ and reach millions of people with a relevant, life-affirming message.”
A huge dry-erase board outlines a 21st-century model of “Peoplehood”: Three lines radiate out—religion, culture and Zionism—and from those, various avenues in the United States and Israel to promote his concepts.
Is the idea of peoplehood his? “I think it’s God’s,” Abramowitz says, somewhat shyly. That is the paradox of Yossi—he blends soft-spoken modesty with an almost immodest belief in himself as a latter-day prophet and self-styled heir to Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am crossed with business strategist Jim Collins.
“Ahad Ha’am realized in the early 20th century that most Jews were not believers and that we needed to create a nonhalakhic system of Jewish ethics worldwide, based on Jewish values,” he says. Religion is part of Jewish peoplehood, Abramowitz says, but he prefers to define paths to Jewish identity that flow from 43 core values, “the DNA of peoplehood.” (The address of his Web blog, The Uncensored Rants of Yossi Abramowitz, is www.peoplehood.org.)
Abramowitz is hardly antireligion. Young Judaea introduced him to prayer and Jewish-based social action; he went on Year Course in 1982. For the past 16 years, he has been paying weekly pre-Shabbat visits to the mikve, a ritual he now shares with sons Adar and Zamir. His “traditional-egalitarian” family has spent every Sukkot and Shavuot on a farm with a havura, dating back to Susan’s rabbinical school days at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In fact, Abramowitz influenced her to consider the rabbinate. Yet he is unafraid of the unconventional: He suggests that rather than remain single, Jewish women in their mid-thirties marry non-Jewish men who would raise halakhically recognized Jewish children in unambiguous Jewish homes.
“He’s taught me that the values that are really important to me have a Jewish basis,” says Susan, who was raised in a secular, liberal home along with her three sisters, one of whom is the well-known comic and actress Sarah Silverman. “His optimism, faith and perseverance are comforting.”
The parenting magazine she and Abramowitz launched in 1996, Jewish Family & Life!, was followed by a book of the same name (Golden Books). The magazine failed after one issue, and because most of the costs were in printing, experimenting with an e-zine seemed like a good idea.
“Who knew how the Web was going to hit?” Abramowitz asks. “We got there by accident first.”
Truth, integrity and tzedaka are the values closest to his heart. If it sounds a bit like “truth, justice and the American way,” then it will come as no surprise that he is a fan of journalist-superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman. He also collects Boston Red Sox baseball cards (“the theme is hope”) as well as T-shirts from every rally he’s ever attended.
At the top of his list of real-life heroes are his children—Aliza, 13; Hallel, 11; Adar, 7; Zamir, 4; and Ashira, 3—for their “frequent acts of courage or foolishness” and their capacity to be colorblind to the diversity of their family. Aliza and Hallel were instrumental in creating www.world manna.org, the first nonprofit established to influence the food industry to donate a percentage of its profits to fight hunger.
Abramowitz’s other role models include Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Negusa, the leader of Israel’s Atid Echad Party, founded to enhance Israel’s education system and to support the aliya, absorption and reunification of Ethiopian Jewish families. Abramowitz was No. 3 on the party’s roster, though it did not win any seats in the last election. “There are not enough of us telling the Jewish people, ‘yes we can!’” Abramowitz says. He calls Elie Wiesel, with whom he studied at Boston University, a spiritual adviser.
“This is a young man with a burning desire to help the Jewish people, and I believe he has proven that he can make a difference,” says Wiesel. “He represents for his generation—and mine—hope, innovation and excellence in Jewish life.”
Abramowitz “responds to other people in the most human and humane terms,” says Hillel Levine, president of the International Institute for Mediation and Historical Conciliation, professor of sociology and religion at Boston University, JFL board member, teacher and long-time friend. “He sees that the world falls short but still believes it can be a sanctuary for holiness.”
“He has an enormous heart. He doesn’t just write about Jewish families, but tries to put into practice—both at home and in the office—the values he holds dear,” says Susan Berrin, editor of Sh’ma: An Online Journal of Jewish Responsibility, a JFL publication. Abramowitz, says Berrin, is by nature a risk-taker, independent thinker and entrepreneur. But sometimes he takes on too much.
“Wedding spirit to practice was at times challenging,” Berrin adds.
Abramowitz learned early to trust his own ability to change the world. His family made aliya in 1969; he delights in showing a picture of himself and his brother, Adam, in sailor suits en route aboard the Queen Anna Maria. The post-’67 high—prior to the Yom Kippur War—left him with a “distorted” impression that the Jewish people could do anything.
“That sense of possibility and empowerment is a key influence on my wiring to this day,” he says. His family returned to the Boston area three years later, and his parents soon divorced.
His mother, a librarian who later worked for Wang Laboratories and the Internal Revenue Service, moved with her two sons to a hippie commune in Massachusetts. She enrolled him in a Jewish day school so he could maintain his Hebrew fluency and also took him for civil disobedience training at the Clamshell Alliance, an antinuclear organization.
“By 8th grade, I was literate Jewishly and unafraid of police attack dogs and tear gas,” he says.
His grandfather enrolled him in a meditation course on mind dimensions and control, which included a 20-minute affirmation and relaxation tape to which his children now listen. His parents both remarried and he has three other siblings from those marriages.
At Boston University, Abramowitz created his own major—Jewish public policy—and initiated antiapartheid events like a four-day protest outside the university president’s office. To end a 10-day hunger strike he undertook, a friend he had just met brought him a cake frosted with the word “Justice.” That was Susan. “When we were dating,” she recalls, “I’d feel like I was sacrificing the well-being of a lot of people just to go to a movie.”
Abramowitz chaired the World Union of Jewish Students and the Union of Councils for Jews in the Soviet Union, which was nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize. With a Wexner fellowship (he was broke for most of his youth), he attended the Columbia School of Journalism. “It was never journalism for the sake of journalism,” he recalls. “It was always advocacy journalism. I’d pick and choose what to write about.”
Among his award-winning and groundbreaking stories, he counts a profile of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (he was the last journalist to interview him before his stroke); an exposé of the Jewish National Fund that made him powerful enemies; and a life-endangering crusade to rescue Ethiopian Jews that became a personal journey. The continuing plight of Ethiopian Jews is the biggest public policy failure in Jewish life, he says.
Becoming a CEO was a learning process, complete with fund-raising, management and leadership seminars that have left their imprint in the corporate jargon (“systemic impactful endeavors”) with which he peppers his conversation. He might be able to shelve some of that now, along with 40 years of memorabilia, clippings, bumper stickers, pins and more that Susan insisted he clean out of the garage before their move. He has already digitized some of them on his computer instead, unwilling to lose the physical reminders of the memories entirely.
“We have a generation of kids and adults who have amnesia about Jewish activism,” he says, fingering a “Free Sharansky Now” bumper sticker. “For me, it was never rebellion for rebellion’s sake. It always had a purpose to it.”