Over the course of his illustrious career, Israel “Izzy” Tapoohi has helmed some of the most recognizable Israeli franchises, including Africa-Israel Investments, Bezeq, Israel Bonds and the Israel Electric Corporation.
But, as he announces his retirement at year’s end, Tapoohi, 76, says nothing has been more fulfilling than his role over the last six years as president and CEO of the Birthright Israel Foundation, the non-profit organization that raises funds in the United States to support Birthright Israel trips.
“There is no position that I have held either in business or in the nonprofit world that is so impactful, that is so rewarding, that is so satisfying as leading the Birthright Israel Foundation,” Tapoohi told JNS. “And the reason for that is when I meet a young Jewish adult, and I see their lack of knowledge of Judaism and what Israel is all about, and then I meet them again when they have been to Israel and they tell me it’s a life changing experience, I know I am making a difference.”
Tapoohi will be stepping down during a time of transition and challenges for Birthright, which has seen key benefactor Miriam Adelson recently announce major cutbacks in giving in an attempt to rally the larger Jewish community to put its own philanthropic skin in the game. Tapoohi, though, says his decision predates those cuts, as he and his staff have fought the effects of inflation as well.
“In 2022, we had our most successful fundraising year, raising $80 million. With our recent announcements of the 30% rise in costs, our donors continue to step up and show their dedication to and support of our mission,” said Tapoohi, who noted that Birthright closed summer registration with 32,000 applicants for only 12,000 spots in North America. “I am confident their dedication will continue and grow in 2023, and I am glad I will be able to be a part of this transformative year before I retire.”
Tapoohi says he has spent the last few months since the Adelson/Bronfman announcement touting to American Jewish leaders Birthright’s impact within their own organizations and the American Jewish community at large.
He proudly points to a Leading Edge survey showing 49% of young Jewish communal professionals, 61% of Moishe House residents and 50% of OneTable participants are Birthright Israel alumni. This is in addition to the profound impact Birthright has on its alumni’s attachment to Judaism and Israel, as revealed in a 2020 Pew Research Center survey and subsequent analysis by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
Still, Tapoohi told JNS that it’s time for him to depart New York City and focus on his family back in Israel.
“People say that I have the energy of a young person, and that might be so, but at some point, you get to the stage where you say to yourself, it’s time to retire after a long successful career,” said Tapoohi. “All my children and grandchildren are in Israel, and Dad and Mom cannot stay in the United States, apart from them, much longer.”
He told JNS that he and his wife Regina “educated our children about Zionism.” When his family immigrated from Australia in 1979, he said, “We made the decision to assist in a Zionist endeavor. I am a Zionist at the core. And I’m not getting any younger, so I think it’s the right time to retire at the end of 2023 and return to Israel and at the same time ensure that Birthright will have younger leadership to continue its growth.”
Tapoohi will help in the search for his successor, which he said must be someone who has the “executive skill sets” required to move Birthright forward. For Tapoohi, that means someone who “is a committed person, with a love for Judaism—not necessarily from a religious point of view—and a love and understanding of what Israel is all about.”
If the next Birthright leader holds those foundational traits, Tapoohi says, “they will surely have the passion as well as the skills to succeed.”
“When we take participants to Israel, we take them for an insight tour, and not a sightseeing tour,” said Tapoohi, quoting Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s vice president of educational strategy.
“At the end of their trip, they grow, and appreciate seeing what it’s like to have a majority culture, and they feel proud as a Jewish person, and fall in love with the country and its people. So, I think the person that is going to follow me has to have the same passion, the same love, the same understanding,” said Tapoohi.
As he nears the end of his career, Tapoohi remembered his father, Zeev, who served as a chaplain in the Israel Defense Forces during the War of Independence and later led communities in Sweden and Australia.
Tapoohi surmised that his father likely wanted his son to become a rabbi, as well, “because he was very similar in the way of wanting to ensure and to influence the Jewish future and direction. He spent a lot of time with young Jewish teens, trying to help them understand a little bit more of what Judaism was all about. I think today he’s looking down at me and saying to himself, in the end, ‘I didn’t manage to make him a rabbi, but at Birthright he’s doing similar work, in a different way.’ ”
While Tapoohi says he’ll be doing a combination of nonprofit and private sector work following his move back to Israel, he is essentially preparing to close the final full chapter of his professional career.
He says he wants to bring things to a close properly, and use his final Birthright board retreat in June to hop on a bus for a Birthright tour, just as he did when he first took the job.
“That was very important. I learned a heck of a lot,” said Tapoohi. “But it would be nice as a parting gift to get on to one of the buses and have my time here come full circle. Seeing these young Jewish adults with a new spark in their eyes will be the best retirement gift I could ask for.”