by Irv Cantor, Volunteer
What is management all about? Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, summarized it well when he said, “The show does not go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it’s 11:30.” Management makes sure commitments are met, expectations fulfilled. For David London, the commitment is not just on a brochure, it is in his heart. The following is a summary of an interview with David, in his office on November 25, 2013.
David, thank you for agreeing to this interview and for letting us give our blog readers a chance to get better acquainted with you.
For starters, how did you come to AACI? What were you doing beforehand?
I made aliyah with my family in 1991. Before then, I was the director for Young Judea in the southeastern United States. In those days, there was no such thing as having a job in Israel before you made aliyah, and people didn’t commute for work overseas while in Israel. My aliyah shaliach said you take the first job you can take, because they don’t really think you are here until you have a job. We moved to a merkaz klitah (absorption center), and in those days, there were barely pay phones, cell phones, and certainly no email.
Was aliyah something you and your wife had been thinking about for a while?
My wife and I had each spent our freshman year of college in Israel on separate programs. We did not know each other then, but we both loved Israel and wanted to come back.
When we eventually made aliyah, I went to ulpan, and my class was made up of all Ethiopians and me. So if I missed class, it was kind of obvious. I needed a job, a simple eight-to-four type of job. I saw a job advertised for AACI, the lowest level job, a kind of “gofer”. They liked my background and they hired me. I found a wonderful home at AACI, but to be honest, I could not afford to work there. I was offered a job at USY (United Synagogue Youth) to work for just six weeks in the summer. The pay was excellent and included a free plane ticket to America. So I approached AACI about leaving, and they proposed finding a replacement for the six week absence, but continuing at AACI for the rest of the time. And we were able to work that out. For the next two years I was given different coordinator roles. I used to joke that every time I wanted to leave they would promote me.
After some time, I became the National Program Coordinator. When AACI eliminated that position, I became the AACI Director in Haifa. Although we had a number of wonderful friends there, it was too city-ish for us and our kids. And that feeling also made us think about my leaving AACI. We moved to Beit Shemesh. When the Director positions in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem opened up, I decided to take the Tel Aviv position and was there for a number of years. Subsequently, I took on a co-administrator position for the entire organization in the National Office in Jerusalem.
In 1999, the Israeli economy was not doing well, and AACI was informed of a large cut in funding from the Jewish Agency. The high tech sector was doing well; I was offered a position at Intel, and I took it. They were specifically looking for people with no technical background. The idea was to bring in new thinking, to break out of the merubah (square) thinking typical of engineers. There were 14 of us, and we went through a six-month university-type training before being put in administrative positions. As good as the position and compensation were, I quickly realized it was not for me. I am a Zionist in my blood, in my DNA. I like helping the Jewish world. I was unhappy, but stayed there because of the poor economy, and I did some volunteering at AACI. Until one day in 2001, when I got a call from AACI about the Director position in Jerusalem. They thought I would not be interested, but I was very interested. I later became the Executive Director.
Let’s turn to something more current and more specific. Can you describe what a typical day is like for you?
A typical day for me usually starts in the office at 7:30. I boot up my computer and try to take advantage of that quiet time to plow through my email.
You know, in a global volunteer organization, you don’t work from eight to four. If you’re up at two in the morning, you will very likely find someone else immediately responding to your email or sending you messages.
My schedule is often filled with meetings, but I need to find time to do other work as well. Often meetings start the discussion about an issue, but it is the follow up work that resolves the matter. Most staff arrives around eight. Around 8:30 our front desk volunteers come in. They are lovely people, some of whom have been with us for over ten years. I always like to go out and say hello to the front desk volunteers.
A normal day ends around six.
Do you travel much?
There are two levels – I try to visit the main branches at Netanya, Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv, but I would like to spend more time there. We can do much on the phone or by email, but it doesn’t replace being there.
I travel on some of the AACI tours. We are very proud of the AACI Kosher & Fun Travel program that we have developed. The program serves as a gateway to acquiring new members. Very often people come on the trip knowing little about AACI, but they make friends, have a great time, and learn about us on the trip and end up using our counseling services and enjoying our other programs after the trip.
I think there’s a different mentality when you are an Israeli or when Israel is in the center of your heart which people often say to me. Very often English speakers from the US, Britain Australia etc. join an AACI trip and see the power of this kind of mindset, that we’re all very proud about being Jewish and Israeli. That it is in our DNA; that it is not just going on a trip, it is going on a Zionistic trip. We don’t go around waving an Israeli flag, but we are proud of who we are, we have made a decision. And it is also wonderful because we are a heterogeneous group with various levels of religious observance. What ties us together is that we want to have a carefree travel experience with English-speakers as leaders, companions, and tour guides.
More generally, AACI is an excellent meeting ground for the religious and the secular and everything in between to come together. And I like that. Focusing on what we have in common is amazing. In Israel, where so much is categorized and separated, our goal is to bring people together and to look at a person as a human being.
What skill sets do you have that you value the most for your effectiveness in your job?
I strive to make meaningful connections with people. In my job, I have to talk to different people about different ongoing issues, I have to plan programs and sometimes accompany them. I think the modern world requires multi-tasking and this is one of my strengths.
Was there a specific event or experience over the last few months that was especially rewarding?
I’ve held many positions at AACI, but the one position I never held, and the one I really wanted to have, was to be an Aliyah and Klitah counselor. To have the opportunity to help someone who is going through a difficult period; that is what it is all about. Everything we are doing to help with klitah (absorption) and help olim feel at home is well and good, but to help with a specific problem “hands-on” is truly rewarding and something I do not get to do too often. Every now and then I get to help an individual, and when that happens, I cannot tell you how good I feel.
Is there any part of the job you would describe as fun?
It’s fun for me when I see projects or events come together successfully. When I participate on a trip, when the trip ends and people had a good time, then I can look back on the trip as having been fun. During the trip, before the event, the work is very hard. But when we achieve the success, then all the work transforms to having been fun.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The toughest part is the financial end. We are blessed to have access to an amazing amount of ingenuity, talent and hard work both from our staff and our fabulous volunteers. But ultimately, it takes money to keep the doors open and to continue to meet the needs of our members. It is always hard to ask for donations, but that is something we must continue to do, every day.
It is a very difficult financial world; it is hard to get donations. I am not always good at it, and it is a challenge to ask for personal donations, solicitations, trying to figure out what will inspire a person to involve themselves with AACI and open their wallet so that our programs continue to serve everyone because we care about everyone. We don’t run campaigns for specific causes or groups, which sometimes seem more attractive to sponsors. Our goals and programs are important to thousands of English speakers every day, and we have to deliver a strong message that will compel people to act.
Can you describe the mission of AACI, in just a few words?
AACI represents the interests of English-speakers in Israel, with a tremendous responsibility of representing our entire community, and being many things to many people. We are part of this great mission of bringing all Jews home to Israel. And we know that aliyah never stops! It’s not just about making aliyah; it is about making Israel our home! And that requires the ongoing support and friendship that AACI is famous for providing. It is crucial to help olim during those initial weeks, months and years, and yet still be here when circumstances change. Help, information and friendship can still be needed years later.
You said before that funding is one of your biggest challenges. How is AACI funded?
At one time we used to receive a million dollars from the Jewish Agency. Now we receive nothing from the Agency. We have a budget of about $1.2 or $1.3 million. We are not a large non-profit. We receive about ten percent of our income from donations. We receive about 50 percent from all of our programs, including our travel program. The rest comes from advertising and some special programs.
Let’s turn 180 degrees and get personal. What are your hobbies?
I’ve always loved cars. I own only one car now, but I used to do some repairs on cars and love reading about them. It’s a tough topic for living in Israel – I have not owned a new car since making aliyah.
To be honest, I don’t have time to invest in a serious hobby. I have four children, the oldest was recently married. The oldest is 23 and the youngest 14. My involvement with my family is non-stop. What I really need to do is join a gym.
Let’s consider the path you did not take. If you could go back to school now, what would you study?
My wife says I am a frustrated social worker. I love boxing, and when I was young I did some amateur boxing. But I was too slow to go far with that. And I do not have a good voice, so being a rock and roll star was not a possibility (laughing).
I would like to turn from the past and look to the future. What broad goals do you have for AACI? What is your vision, five years from now, ten years?
We provide service to the English-speaking community, and I think we can be much more. The medical area is a whole area that we can address. I am very proud of taking on the Shira Pransky Project whose purpose is to provide information, at this stage; to translate all materials related to medical services. We have the potential to do much more than medical services, but we are focusing on that first because, we would all agree, people should not misunderstand their rights in such a critical area. The project is going to translate all information currently in Hebrew. Our community often does not know its rights. Even Israelis, who know Hebrew fluently, often do not know their rights and benefits. So a web site has been developed called Kol zchut (Rights) that has that information, all in one place.
I would like to return to the issue of a very divided Israel. Unfortunately, it even penetrates into chesed organizations that do not want to help people who are not like the people in the organization. By having a platform at AACI that services everyone, it enables people to come together. When I was working with Young Judea in the United States, we always talked about the idea of doogma eesheet (personal example). We wanted to set the example of people pushing together toward a common goal.
Let me give you an amazing example. AACI had a trip to Russia around the time when the changes in that country were coming to a close. There was no Chabad or kosher food in those days. People could bring their own food, eat the provided food or eat vegetarian. I was Director of the Jerusalem branch at the time that several of these trips took place. The Board received a complaint from a group of members threatening to resign because AACI was sponsoring non-kosher trips. The Board took a vote that demonstrated the compassion and empathy that we had for each other. All non-Orthodox Board members voted to cancel the trip. All Orthodox Board members voted to have the trip. I was sitting there in amazement. I was so impressed with the mutual respect shown and the ability to think and feel outside the usual boxed-in categories.
When I leave I want to be remembered for making AACI an interesting place and a welcoming place that accepts everyone. I will be proud of having brought us back from a financial crisis to a position of greater strength. Finally, the move from our old Jerusalem facility to our new one here, filled with bustling activity, has been a significant improvement. All of these things were done with the assistance of remarkable workers and volunteers. They turned visions into realities, and I am confident we will continue on this path in the future.
David, thank you for your time and for sharing so much with the AACI membership and all of our readers.
AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in