Though Matt Ronen grew up with little connection to Judaism or Israel, he decided to join the Israel Defense Forces in 2001 after reading one too many tragic headlines about the bus bombings and civilian attacks surrounding the second intifada.
“I would skip lunch and read the newspaper,” said the Ohio native, then an undergraduate at Colorado College. “Something inside me woke up. Just because I was a Jew born in America didn’t mean I was excused of my obligation to my people. At the very least, I had to do what Israelis do — mandatory service.”
His experience as a lone soldier sparked his idea for ServiceCorps (formerly called Service Year), a nonprofit organization that empowers young emerging leaders to dedicate a year to public service before launching their careers. Based on Israel’s model of mandatory national service, Service Fellows defer competitive corporate positions for a year to work at non-profit organizations in New York and Boston. The program’s corporate sponsors include Citibank and General Electric. The first cohort of 14 fellows kick off a boot-camp training this June at GE headquarters.
“A spirit of service is one of Israel’s unexported resources,” said Ronen, reflecting on how his years of service in Israel completely changed his perspective and built character — “I realized there was something so much bigger than just me.” Though service in America remains a “luxury item,” often reserved for those who can afford the time, he hopes his organization will change that.
“Everyone should be able to partake in service. Contributing to a bigger cause is transformative.”
For Ronen, making time for what matters comes from personal experience. In 2011, during his final semester of business school at Cornell University and months away from launching a lucrative corporate career, Ronen was violently assaulted and robbed while walking home from dinner with friends. During his six-month recovery, he reassessed his priorities.
“At first, I wanted to fight to be the person I was before — I wanted to put Humpty Dumpty back together. Then I realized maybe I could be someone better than I was before.” Though he always had a vision of giving back, he decided the moment to act was now. “If giving back is the point, I realized it couldn’t wait. Trying to change the world should be my first chapter, not my last.”
“Yes, good?” When first arriving in Israel, Ronen barely spoke a word of Hebrew. When his army mates asked his name, he responded with the only two Hebrew words he knew: “ken (yes)” and “tov (good).” Hence, his nickname to this day: Ken Tov.