According to Steven Weil of Teaneck, moving from his 11-year tenure as senior managing director of the Orthodox Union to his new job as national director and CEO of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces was not as dramatic a change as it would seem.
At the OU, his goal was to draw American Jews closer to Judaism and the Jewish community, Rabbi Weil said. In his new role, he is looking to reach those same Jews — but this time to draw them closer to the state of Israel.
What he wants, he said, is “to enable American Jews to participate in transforming the future of Israel and the Jewish people.” And that transformation, he believes, can be accomplished through the IDF.
“The IDF is like no other army in the world,” Rabbi Weil said; it acts as both a melting pot and a vehicle of change for Jews — and non-Jews — of all backgrounds and cultures. If, during their three years of army service, soldiers can be imbued with the values and skills they need to live full and responsible lives, then the IDF has been successful.
“The IDF is the ultimate unifier, bringing together Jews from five different continents, as well as different religious and cultural backgrounds, and giving them a chance to thrive, not only during their service, but throughout their lives,” Rabbi Weil said.
He wants to close the geographical gap separating the United States and Israel, giving American Jews a part in transforming Israeli society, “one soldier at a time,” he continued. “This is the first time where refugees returned to their ancestral homeland after two millennia,” and American Jews should take part in helping to shape the future of that homeland.
Rabbi Weil often uses the phrase social justice. “There’s no greater institution of social justice than the IDF,” he said, adding that the goal of IDF programs — many funded by FIDF — is that “no youth be left behind.”
He is particularly proud of Project Overcome, headed by female commanders, which assists soldiers with high-risk backgrounds who were not able to get their high school diplomas. Many young people emerge from this program to become mentors themselves, he said.
He noted as well that IDF programs strive to preserve the dignity of the individual soldier. For example, thousands of soldiers going home to economically struggling families are given the equivalent of credit cards, worth $180 at a supermarket. Rather than simply adding another mouth to feed, the returning soldiers will be able to contribute to the family’s well-being.
In addition, soldiers who choose to go on to university but can’t afford it are helped with scholarships, which are repayable not with money but through community service, entailing 130 hours of volunteer work per year.
This year has required more hours of social outreach by more soldiers than usual. Part of guarding the home front this year has been ensuring that crucial supplies reach communities during the pandemic lockdown. As a result, the army has become the go-to service for providing supplies to hard-hit neighborhoods, Jewish and non-Jewish. “We have photos of imams embracing our soldiers,” Rabbi Weil said.
Rabbi Weil — who was ordained by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and also holds a master’s degree in business administration from NYU’s Stern School of Business — said that the FIDF was established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors in New York and New Jersey. Then as now, the group set out to offer “educational, cultural, recreational, and social programs and facilities that provide hope, purpose, and life-changing support for Israel’s soldiers.”
What started as a welfare program for soldiers, “providing for what was not funded,” has set as its goal “to make sure the IDF provides an opportunity for many young people to become whatever they hope to become after their service.” In other words, he said, it’s about transformation and empowerment.
According to a statement from the FIDF, while the group always has had a CEO, the addition of Rabbi Weil to the team reflects the organization’s desire to “further deepen FIDF’s philanthropic roots within the local community.” To accomplish that goal, “FIDF’s Board has decided to appoint an American-based CEO, along with an IDF general to strengthen fundraising efforts.”
Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan, the former head of the IDF’s Central Command, also is part of the new FIDF senior leadership team. Mr. Padan “has vast experience working in the field of cyber-technology,” Rabbi Weil said, adding that he hopes that this will “increase the chance of connecting the technical world of Israel to that of America.”
Rabbi Weil’s experience positions him well to do this new job, he said. His MBA will be of help in the areas of finance and management, while his rabbinical training “will help me create a family-like, team-like relationship among staff, donors, and supporters. It also gives me listening skills.” And if he leaves a legacy, he wants to be remembered “for the unification of American Jewry and Israeli Jewry,” and for an army experience “where every soldier is provided an opportunity to fulfill their dreams for the next 70 years of their life.”