A veteran of coexistence activism around the world, Tarek Elgawhary, an Egyptian Muslim who lives in Washington, was looking for a project to improve relations between Israeli and Palestinians. “You need to speak to this guy Ben,” friends told him.
Ben is Ben Jablonski, an Australian-born partner in an apparel company and former investment banker who has lived in Manhattan since 2006. Jablonski, who is Jewish, shares Elgawhary’s interest in the Middle East conflict.
They met here, became friends, and decided to found a project, Build Israel and Palestine, which will build a sewage treatment system for Arab villages in the West Bank that are not part of the Palestinian Authority’s still-developing sewage treatment grid.
They sought investments from Jews and Muslims, mostly in the United States, but the amount they raised left them short of what they needed to fully implement their project.
The project’s financial prospects brightened last week when it was announced as one of nine recipients of $100,000 Genesis Generation Challenge grants awarded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who last year received the first Genesis Prize’s first $1 million grant. Funded by the office of Israel’s prime minister, the Jewish Agency and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the prize is awarded to “exceptional individuals whose values and achievements will inspire the next generation of Jews.”
Bloomberg said he would use his prize money to establish a challenge competition to provide seed money for “innovative projects guided by Jewish values to address the world’s pressing issues.” The contest stipulated that each team of social entrepreneurs be led by someone age 20 to 36.
Jablonski, the team leader, is 32; co-founder Elgawhary, is 36.
While a few of the other eight awardees focus on projects in Israel, their scope largely is international. The 52 judges of the competition used a “fairly expansive” definition of Jewish values in choosing the winners, from some 2,000 individuals who initially expressed interest and 113 projects that were finally proposed, said Jill Smith, deputy CEO of the Genesis Prize Foundation. “Doing something to make the world better is part of what Jewish values are.”
The other Challenge recipients are:
♦ Building Up Canada, a nonprofit that will install energy-efficient technology in affordable housing complexes in Toronto.
♦ eNable 3D Printed Prosthetics, which will provide advanced, computer-driven machines that will make free prosthetic limbs for people in countries affected by natural disasters.
♦ Lavan, an Israeli organization that will create “a community of American angel investors” to support projects “that strengthen Israeli and Jewish values.”
♦ Prize4Life, an Israeli nonprofit that is developing an app to help monitor ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) markers.
♦ Sanergy, a Kenya-based initiative that will produce a sanitation plant for Nairobi’s Mathare district.
♦ Sesame, which is developing a smartphone in Israel for disabled people who have no or limited use of their hands.
♦ Spark, which will provide micro-grants to poor, rural communities in Burundi for designing “social impact projects” like the building of schools or health centers.
♦ Vera Solutions, which has established a fellowship to support and mentor “passionate young professionals with skills to drive technology-based innovations in the social sector.”
The winning projects will receive their funding on a quarterly basis, be monitored regularly and receive mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs. But there is no guarantee that all will succeed, Bloomberg said at the Challenge’s announcement press conference last week at the Manhattan headquarters of Bloomberg Philanthropies. The money is a good investment in the future, with a Jewish flavor that emphasizes the shared Jewish values of Israelis and American Jews, he said.
“At a time when many Americans and Israelis fear the relationship between our countries has become irrevocably strained, we must recognize that the bond our citizens share is based on our common democratic values, like freedom, justice, innovation and community,” Bloomberg said.
Smith called the number and variety of the submitted projects a sign “that millennials want to make a difference in the world. The judges were inspired by the idea that in a time of polarization [especially in the Middle East] real people on the ground wanted to work together to make a difference.”
She said Build Israel and Palestine was the only submitted project in which Jewish and Muslim directors played a prominent role. “It is a great project — people would come together and transcend politics.”
“Current coexistence initiatives between Jews and Muslims do not create results because projects are funded almost exclusively by Jewish donors and organizations. If all parties are not invested financially and emotionally, it is extremely difficult to advance coexistence,” the project’s application states. “Our council consists of five Muslims and five Jews who are all eager to apply their resources and expertise” for Build Israel and Palestine.
While many Jewish organizations provide financial support to similar social entrepreneur projects, the Challenge sought to identify and foster members of the millennial generation who often have not achieved the recognition to qualify for such grants. The judges looked for “not the usual suspects” who already have established connections to the Jewish establishment. “We’ve reached a different audience,” she said, adding that social media played a large role in publicizing the competition.
Another advantage of focusing on the 20 to 36 age group is that it will create millennial-aged role models, which are more likely to inspire other millennials to become active in such humanitarian work than older winners would, she said.
“A hundred thousand dollars is not going to change the world, but it may help to attract more money” to each Challenge recipient, Smith said. The Challenge’s remaining $100,000 will pay for overhead.
Jablonski and Elgawhary declined to specify how much they had previously raised from Jewish and Muslim philanthropists in this country, but said the Challenge funds will enable them to start their sewage treatment project in the West Bank in the next few months; now they’re looking for the right village, with a population of about 300 residents.
“This [Challenge money] does give us a platform — it allows us to have more respect and recognition,” Jablonski said. “We are trying to address a problem on both sides [of the Israeli-Palestinian] divide that has nothing to do with geopolitics.”
He said his interest in the West Bank’s sewage treatment issue grew out of his previous volunteer work as founder of JNFuture, a leadership training program for the Jewish National Fund. That sparked his interest in land-use issues.
Some 75 percent of residents of the West Bank have no access to a grid of home sewage collection, Jablonski said. Instead, he said, sewage from most Arabs’ homes there goes directly into the ground, seeping into aquifers, the underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials that Israel and the West Bank have in common. “It poisons the ground for both sides. It’s a shared aquifer,” he said.
In lieu of a wide-scale sewage treatment plant, the project will install a series of septic tanks that will turn out water fit to be used for agriculture in local fields using membrane-based technology that was recently proven effective by USAID, the philanthropic arm of the U.S. government.
The project, which has partnered with Israel’s Arava Institute, is endorsed by USAID and local municipalities on the West Bank, Jablonski said.
He said his project may expand to other regional problems, like the shortage of electric power or potable water, and will invite other participants to join the work of Build Israel and Palestine. “There is plenty of space for other people to get involved,” he said.