Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, enjoys the highest density of start-ups per capita in the world. What is it about our small, inventive and productive country that explains its incredible success in innovation, security and medicine?
In her recent book, Israeli tech entrepreneur Inbal Arieli makes the case that all of Israel’s success can be explained with a handful of key words that she calls the “chutzpah dictionary.”
For example, the word “balagan” captures a quintessential Israeli way of life. Children are afforded the freedom to express themselves and play without parental interference. Ariel argues it’s a great skill to have in life. To manage ambiguity and unpredictability.
Another word is “firgun” which means taking part in another person’s joyful experience, just for the sake of it, without expecting anything in return – a pure sentiment of sympathy. Arieli explained “It is a genuine attempt at making someone else feel good, not to be confused with simply complimenting someone. It is so much stronger than a compliment.”
But the most important Israeli key word is the name of the book itself – Chutzpah. Says Arieli: “With the right amount of chutzpah, anything is possible. Whether you’re a 7-year-old kid insisting on speaking out at a family dinner or an experienced business executive proposing a creative solution to a commercial transaction, you are instilled with chutzpah power – determined, courageous, and optimistic that anything can be achieved.”
So much of Israel’s historic success is expressed through the notion of chutzpa. Israel is a nation where being told “no” is simply a hurdle ready to be jumped over and proven wrong. When the nations of the world said that a State for the Jews in the Arab Middle East was a ludicrous idea, our ancestors went ahead and created a State for the Jews in the Arab Middle East. When conqueror after conqueror said that nothing prosperous can ever blossom in those Middle Eastern desserts, our ancestors went ahead and made the land grow and flourish. And when people doubted if Torah or Jewish culture could ever survive in the aftermath of near annihilation in the Holocaust, our People came together to not only survive, but thrive beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations.
When Susan Kaplansky died in 2002, her best friend’s husband, Avital, wanted to help fulfill her dream of helping at risk youth through art. Everyone told Avital that he had no experience with art, no experience with at risk children, and no experience with business. What did Avital do? He created Susan’s House, one of my favorite places to visit in Israel—an absolutely extraordinary place where miracles happen every day.
Susan’s House is a warm, welcoming place for at-risk teens. These teens, most of whom are from the street, are taught to create beautiful glass work, ceramics and jewelry. Through their artwork, these teens develop a sense of self-worth and learn the life skills to find their place in society.
On your next trip to Israel, visit Susan’s House (http://susanshouse.org.il) and let these teens show off what they have made and how they made it. Buy their artwork and watch as their faces light up, beaming with pride and confidence. Their parents didn’t believe in them. Society had rejected them. But when you visit and buy something that they worked hard to make, you’re making an investment in them and their future. Everyone said it can’t happen, but Avital had the chutzpa to say, “I’m doing it anyways” and it’s a good thing that he did. He has saved countless lives and has changed the narrative for every single one of these teens.
Anna, a young girl from Russia, was abandoned by her family and bounced from orphanage to orphanage. Anna is an extremely talented dancer and, as a Jew, was given an opportunity to attend dance school in Israel through Massa, a program of the Jewish Agency that our community helps fund. With no Jewish background or identity, Anna came to Israel.
One year later, when Anna met with her sponsor from the agency and was asked how things were going, she described how welcomed and embraced she had felt. She had been taken in by an Israeli family and felt like she has a country full of bubbies because everyone is always checking in on her and seeing if she needs anything. She told her sponsor something extraordinary, “with your scholarship, you thought you were giving me a land. But, you gave me something much more – you gave me a family with nine million cousins.” Her family abandoned her. Her country abandoned her. The whole world told Anna no, but in Israel Anna developed the chutzpa to say “Yes, I can accomplish anything and I can make my impact.”
These are just some of the many stories of Jews who have learned to overcome all odds, thumb their nose at the naysayers, and achieve incredible success. The Gemarah in Beitzah says - why was the Torah given to the Jews? Because of our determination and resolve. Because of our “Azus D’kedusha,” our holy and spiritual chutzpa.
Alberta Szalita, a prominent psychiatrist researching the subject of leadership, interviewed Golda Meir, Israel’s then-prime minister, and asked her to explain her rise to leadership. Golda, with her usual sharp wit, responded, “I don’t know anything about leadership. But I can tell you that I was going to the theater one evening and got on an elevator. Nobody in the elevator bothered to move. So, I pressed the button. That’s all I can say about leadership.”
Being a Jew means stepping forward and simply being the one to push the button. Being a Jew means that when other people see hurdles, obstacles and obstructions - you see possibilities, potential, and promise. Being a Jew means that when the voice inside your head says “I’m not good enough to do it. Or I’m not smart enough to do it. Or I’ll never be successful,” you step forward and push the button anyways.
Being a Jew means never accepting no as an answer. It means never succumbing to excuses and resignation. The improbable story of our People means that, as a Jew, anything is always possible.