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Inside the Jewish Agency

"Jewish is a Verb": A Conversation with Chairman of the Board of Governors, Chuck Ratner

Charles (Chuck) Horowitz Ratner was elected to serve as The Jewish Agency's Chairman of the Board of Governors in July 2014. Previously, he served as The Agency's vice chair, heading its Budget and Finance Committee. Mr. Ratner is Chairman of the Board of Forest City Enterprises, Inc., a national owner and developer of real estate headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. He is married to Ilana Horowitz Ratner, a community educator and executive coach for NGO's; they have four children and seven grandchildren.

Q: What about your background made you an activist?

A:  My wife and I were born to this kind of work. We both come from families of active, passionate Zionists, immigrants who modeled the concept of "Kol Israel arevim zeh la'zeh" – mutual responsibility of all Jews for each other. Starting in the 1950's, my father and his family invested in many "start-up" businesses in Israel.  He believed that a strong, vital Israel could prosper if it could become economically independent. Unfortunately, he did not live to see Israel become the "Start-Up Nation" but he would have loved these successes. His Zionism was entirely active and entrepreneurial. Like my father, I am "farbrente" about Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel), and Klal Yisrael (the People of Israel.) And I learned from my father-in-law that Jewish is a verb. It requires action.

Q: What surprises you most about today's Israel?

A: This place is a miracle. Who would have dreamed that our generation would be part of the first Jewish State in 2,000 years? Of course there are challenges here which we need to address both among ourselves and with our neighbors. But let's always remember the miracles. This includes the exodus of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry.  Natan (Sharansky) hates when I call him a hero. But he is a hero. In 1,000 years, Jewish children will study what he did, what we as a People collectively did.

That includes taking a tiny piece of land in a distressed neighborhood and making it bloom, and bringing our people back home. That includes freeing our Russian brothers and sisters from a kind of slavery. It includes The Jewish Agency bringing to Israel, over the years, some 3 million Jews. It is all part of a miracle, one that we, the collective Jewish people, helped along with our own hands.  This miracle continues today for the Jews of Europe, and Ukraine. There is somewhere to go, and someone to bring them there. We can't do any of this alone. Only as a collective, comprised of individuals who believe they can change any given reality for the better.  

Q: As a lay leader, what attracted you to The Jewish Agency in particular?

A: If you believe in the collective power of Jewish peoplehood, The Jewish Agency is a wonderful place to invest your abilities and resources. It provides a transformational platform for us to work as a collective. This place inspires a Zionist passion that attracts and will grow talented future leadership – both in Israel and abroad. Ilana and I know this from our work in Cleveland Federation and in our day school and synagogue communities:  To strengthen Jewish continuity, look for interventions that can make a positive difference. Connect the next generation to Israel and to each other. I've seen kids simply transformed by the sense that they are part of the Jewish People.

This is the building that is taking place today. My dad was building plants and mills in Northern Israel, building the State. Now, more than ever, we are investing in people and their Jewish identity. The Agency is THE place in the position to provide this kind of strategic programming on a large scale. To me it embodies working together to accomplish what we can't do alone.

Of course, large organizations have challenges which need to be strategically addressed. And address them, we will.  But, in the meantime, when frustrated with the organizational "stuff" – I go out to the field. (This is something I learned from Cleveland Jewish Federation's Steve Hoffman. It is excellent advice.) Be with the people your programs impact, and the people who run them. The Agency has a special, dedicated, talented staff – truly amazing people. These professionals will inspire you.

Q: How has your role impacted your own family?

A: Yes. Here are two examples:

First, when our daughter graduated from college, she enrolled in a Masa program (Otzma) in order to "understand why this work and Israel are so important to you, as they were to Grandpa."

Second, when our niece graduated from college, she, too, enrolled in a Masa program (Career Israel), and extended her stay, ultimately making Aliyah. 

These experiences were transformative for both our daughter and our niece and have connected us and our family in deeper ways to our People and to Israel.  

04 Sep 2014 / 9 Elul 5774 0
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