As a former commander in the Israel Defense Forces, how did you come to join the FIDF?
The chairman emeritus of the organization, Arthur Stark, got my name from the chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi. He interviewed me and asked me to take the position. I wasn’t sure I would like to deal with fundraising and things like that, but I gave a speech at one of the dinners and I realized the importance of this organization, not just for the well-being of the Israeli soldiers but as a bridge between Jewish communities in the United States and Panama and the State of Israel.
The IDF recently made a commitment to build sustainably and to focus on protecting the environment. Why was this important?
First of all, because of budget constraints the Israel Defense Forces hadn’t really invested in the comfort of the soldiers. If you can believe it, we used to live in buildings from the time of the British Mandate. Slowly, the IDF and the Minister of Defense (MOD) have invested in changing its environments and giving the commanders and the soldiers the comfort they need to operate effectively and efficiently.
You can stretch your dollar a lot further if you’re building efficiently.
Sure. What we, as the FIDF, are building are well-being facilities. We’re not dealing with situation rooms. We are an American independent organization, so we’re working in accordance with American law, and what we can do is support the well-being of the Israeli soldiers. That means we build clubs, gyms, auditoriums, swimming pools, synagogues, libraries, infirmaries—things like that. And all of the projects, regarding the government and the MOD, are green buildings, which is important not just for the environment; it’s very important for the people that live in and use these buildings. Many of our donors ask us to make sure these are highly sophisticated buildings built with the most effective materials. Fifteen years ago, many of the buildings in the IDF were asbestos, the roof was asbestos. And this is a main source for cancer. Not anymore. The current buildings are amazing.
Your project in the Negev region is a massive undertaking. Tell me about that.
We are removing ten old training bases from the center of Israel [and relocating them] to the southern part of Israel. All of the training bases will be in one place. It’s almost a training city. Ten-thousand soldiers will be there every three months, which means the base will accumulate 40,000 soldiers a year. This is a two billion shekel project, and we are responsible for 45 million dollars of well-being facilities, [including] a sports center and a park. One of our donors sponsored a park outside the base with 20,000 trees—in the middle of the desert. This is amazing. Most of the electricity will be solar. We will recycle water. It’s a really big project, and we’re very proud to be involved with it.
Is it a virgin site, or are there existing buildings?
It’s completely new. Nothing was there before. If you go there in six months, or in one year, you’ll see a very successful city. The Israeli government is going to invest in a trail so that the train can come there and serve all the cities around it. It’s going to change the Negev. This is one of the engines to re-implement the vision of our founder and our first prime minister: to settle the Negev and to use the Negev wisely without harming nature and to live with nature.
That’s a challenge with creating something this large. You’re pouring new roads and doing all these things from scratch. What are some of the other green strategies you’re using?
All of the materials for the construction are green. They took into consideration the needs of wildlife. Right now, there’s a lot of dust, but it will be clean and the air there will be the best in Israel. It also will be a station where people can stop and drink fresh water and rest as they travel [through] the southern part of Israel.
Has it been challenging to adopt new practices?
It’s a long process. An awareness of the environment [in Israel] started 20 or 25 years ago, but it’s become one of our first priorities. We won’t build anything before we make sure we are [protecting] the environment. This is where we are living and we need to do our best to protect [it] and the world as well.
Have you experienced any push back?
Actually not. It’s not that there weren’t discussions about it, but today in Israel there are regulations. Many years ago, we didn’t even have a ministry to protect the environment. Today we have a ministry, and let me tell you, they can close other ministries but they will never ever close this ministry. It’s exactly the way a family tries to keep its home as clean as can be and its quality as great as can be—we understand that the IDF, the biggest institution in Israel, needs to protect the environment. For us, it’s even more [important]; we protect the land that we believe was given to us by God. So we need to make sure we don’t harm the land. So no, I didn’t hear any objection to the idea even though it costs more. Because it costs more in the short term, but it gives you a lot in the long term, for many, many generations to come.
You’re planning to return to Israel soon, is that correct?
I hope so. We do great things here for the soldiers, for the state of Israel, and for the Jewish people—and I would say even for the free world—so it was a great opportunity to be part of something that I consider bigger than myself. But we are missing Israel because it is our home.