After more than 10 years as the chief executive officer of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Steven Weil was named national director and CEO of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) in August, replacing Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir, who held the post for the past six years. With this move, FIDF installed its first American-based chief executive, enabling the organization to deepen its roots within the U.S. philanthropic community.
In a telephone interview with The Jewish Link, Rabbi Weil discussed the reasons for his career move, the importance of FIDF to the State of Israel and his future goals for the organization.
“Over the last 30 years I’ve had a hand in building American Jewry, and this is a chance to build what I feel is the future of the Jewish people: Israel,” Rabbi Weil said. “I was always a donor to FIDF, but I didn’t always appreciate what FIDF does; I didn’t understand the transformational impact of FIDF on the future of Israel. It enables the IDF to be the great unifier of the Jewish world; they take Jews from all over and build a nation together. FIDF deals with the heart and soul of Israel. FIDF enables the IDF to be an army like no other on earth.”
Rabbi Weil had an interesting path to FIDF. He is the son of German Jewish refugees. “Half of my family was annihilated by Hitler,” he shared. “One branch came to America. My grandparents bought a cattle farm 50 miles outside of Buffalo. We were the only Jews; our neighbors were mainly Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist.”
How did he become connected to Israel? “My father would sell [the neighbors] Israel bonds; he would guarantee principal and interest and ask them to buy bonds. It was the best education for a kid on the cattle truck, to see my dad selling Israel bonds,” he said.
Rabbi Weil developed a love of learning and attended yeshiva for his final years of high school. He then learned at Kerem B’Yavneh and Yeshiva University, concurrently getting semicha at REITS and an MBA from NYU, before beginning his career in education. He later shifted his focus from teaching to the pulpit, before becoming CEO of the OU in 2009.
Rabbi Weil believes that his time at the OU made him uniquely qualified to step into this role. “The OU runs nine or 10 nonprofits, engaging unaffiliated Jews, trying to connect them to our heritage, Israel and our history.” He plans to take the skills he cultivated as CEO of the OU and use them to move FIDF successfully into the future.
According to its own literature, “FIDF was established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors as a not-for-profit humanitarian organization with the mission of offering educational, cultural, recreational and social programs and facilities that provide hope, purpose and life-changing support for Israel’s soldiers.” Rabbi Weil hopes to take that mission to the next level.
“My long-term goals are to connect every facet of American Jewry to Israeli Jewry. I don’t think the average American Jew appreciates that FIDF gives soldiers tools for life. I want to expand our base of those who connect to Israeli Jews,” he stated, continuing, “The soldiers give three years of their life to Israel. Our job is to give them the tools so they can impact Israel for the next 60 years.”
“FIDF is the only acknowledged organization that represents the IDF in America,” he added. “There is no other organization that partners with the IDF to assist the future of these soldiers. We provide transformational solutions that alter the rest of their lives. We are financial partners and strategy partners in building the future of Israel.”
Rabbi Weil went on to discuss some of the ways FIDF impacts the lives of Israeli soldiers.
“We offer impact scholarships, full university tuition and spending money. Often it’s the first time in a family that someone gets a university degree, and a degree in Israel means you’re employable,” he noted.
“There are people who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds with no hope of a future and no self-respect. There are special bases…Project Overcome…where the first thing the commanders teach is self-decency and self-worth. They teach them life skills. The goal is to mainstream them into regular bases, for them to graduate high school or get an equivalency diploma,” he added.
“During the two quarantines in Israel, besides being ready on the northern and southern borders, the IDF was overseeing the COVID wards, bringing pharmaceuticals and Pesach food to those who couldn’t get out. It is an army that cares about every sector of the population,” Rabbi Weil continued.
He then turned to the assistance given to lone soldiers. “The Israeli army is unlike any other. It has lone soldiers from 70 countries, the largest number from the U.S. We fund their ability to integrate into life in Israel. We build and support lone soldier facilities so they have a place to go.”
Rabbi Weil acknowledged that the work of FIDF, like nearly every facet of life, became considerably more difficult due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We have to work much harder because of the challenging economic times,” he remarked.
In most years, there are 8,000 IDF soldiers below Israel’s poverty level. FIDF assists them so they are able to bring food home to their families, “so they are not a burden, but rather they bring relief,” Rabbi Weil said. COVID-19 has caused 29,000 soldiers to fall into that category, and FIDF is committed to assisting every one of them. “It makes a very compelling case for people to support us and the work we do,” he said.
In response to a question about relations between FIDF and the Orthodox community, Rabbi Weil shared, “The Orthodox community is passionate, engaged and very Zionistic; they would love to partner and build the future of Israel one soldier at a time. I think FIDF will become part of the very fiber of Orthodox American Jews as they learn about its transformative impact.”
“FIDF educates people through the IDF and they go on to be entrepreneurs and scientists who change the future of humanity. No matter the community, once they understand the impact they will have, they will be proud to partner with us. Our job is to get the message out there and engage with the people.”
For more information about FIDF, visit www.fidf.org.