The Sun Keeps Shining on Yosef Abramowitz

Assaf Dudai

Assaf Dudai

Freelance writer based in Tel Aviv

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Assaf Dudai ~

From the Blog

Activist, immigrant, presidential candidate: Yosef Abramowitz has played many roles. But his most important one—solar energy entrepreneur—is revolutionizing how Israelis power their world.

There aren’t many Israelis who, when you try to schedule an interview with them, tell you that next Tuesday won’t work because they’re meeting with the president of Rwanda. But Yosef Abramowitz is not your typical Israeli.

The meeting with President Paul Kagame did indeed take place. In Los Angeles, the two men finalized an agreement in which Rwanda will purchase power from Energiya Global, a renewable energy company focused on the development and management of utility-scale solar fields in emerging markets. Abramowitz is its president. “We are interconnecting in July,” Abramowitz tells me with a big smile. “Eight percent of the power supply for the entire country will come from our fields.” The deal is even more impressive than he lets on. It will be the first grid-level electric plant in East Africa based on solar energy.

But Abramowitz is reluctant to take credit. “Haim Motzen, our managing director, is leading the effort,” he says. “I’m just signing papers and shaking hands.” Even though Abramowitz—born in the United States—has lived in Israel for eight years and accomplished a great deal in that time, he still seems to struggle with adopting Israelis’ customary arrogance.

Energiya Global was founded by Abramowitz as a spinoff of Arava Power, a company he founded with partners Ed Hofland and David Rosenblatt just months after making aliyah. Yet pioneering the country’s solar power industry wasn’t his plan when he and his family decided to take a two-year hiatus in Israel. Abramowitz and his wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman, wanted to spend time with their five children and write books. “I got distracted,” Abramowitz says. “My wife did write her book, about adoption in Judaism, a beautiful book. But I never got to write mine.”

A solar panel at Kibbutz Ketura. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

A solar panel at Kibbutz Ketura. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

They initially planned to relocate to Jerusalem. But while the family was preparing to move from Boston to Israel, Abramowitz received a phone call from an Israeli friend. He recalls: “‘Listen,’ he tells me, ‘we’re putting together the first Ethiopian party to run for the Knesset. We want you to be on the ticket.’ I said, ‘sure.’” It’s one of those things that Abramowitz says in an offhand way; like it’s nothing much, just something that happened.

But it didn’t just happen. Abramowitz had been active in the struggle to rescue Ethiopian Jewry since 1981. There is a fantastic photo, taken in Addis Ababa in 1998, that shows Abramowitz standing, legs slightly apart, hands crossed in front, looking at the camera with 8,000 Ethiopian Jews behind him waiting for approval to make aliyah. Later, he and his wife adopted two Ethiopian children, the second because “the first one wanted a brother that looked like him.”

Abramowitz has done so much for the Ethiopian Jewish community that they wanted him to be a part of their first formal representation in Israel. “I thought they would put me in number 10 or something [on the party list], an honorary mention but an unrealistic seat. They put me in number three.” The party, Atid Echad (“One Future”) didn’t get enough votes to enter the Knesset, but the run boded well for Abramowitz’s future career. And, somewhat involuntarily, it changed his future plans. “So here I was,” he says, “still living in Boston, haven’t moved to Israel yet, already running for the Knesset. When my wife heard this, she told me, ‘Look at you, already involved in Israeli politics. We’re moving as far away from Jerusalem as possible.’ So Ketura it was.”

Ketura is a medium-size kibbutz in the southern part of the Arava, a long, narrow rift valley stretching from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. It is a hot, sunny, and dry stretch of desert with breathtaking views of the Edom Mountains in Jordan. The Abramowitzes did not choose Ketura by chance. The unique attributes of the kibbutz fit the couple’s beliefs perfectly.

It was founded in 1973, right after the Yom Kippur War, by a group of young Jewish-Americans, most of them former members of the Young Judaea youth movement. Abramowitz speaks highly of his experience in Young Judaea and repeatedly mentions the movement as a key inspiration for his 30 years of activism.

Another thing that sets Ketura apart is its belief in religious pluralism. In keeping with their Marxist origins, most kibbutzim are intensely secular; but Ketura is very different. Kashrut and Shabbat are observed in all public areas, and there is even a synagogue. But individual members are free to ignore religious tradition in their private homes. As a result, the kibbutz is comprised of religious, masorti (traditionalist), and secular members.

The Abramowitz family is observant. Abramowitz himself wears a yarmulke, and his wife is a prominent Reform rabbi. So an American pluralist kibbutz, in one of the quietest places in Israel, was an ideal location for a family to spend quality time together while writing a few books.

But Ketura had other plans. “On the first day we arrived,” he says, “I realized we need to start the solar industry in Israel.” And it was the natural world of the kibbutz that did it. “When we got out of the taxi in Ketura,” he recalls, “the sun was unbelievable.”

The sun shines brightly at Kibbutz Ketura. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The sun shines brightly at Kibbutz Ketura. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The sun at Ketura is indeed unbelievable. First, it hangs alarmingly low in the sky. You can almost feel it brushing against your shoulder when you walk through the kibbutz. And it does not gently pat your shoulder like it does in Florida or Venice Beach. It comes in all its fury. It pushes hard, leaning its full weight on you. After a while, you feel like your posture is less upright than usual. Its light also seems stronger. It is tremendously white and blinding, generating a dense wall of heat. When the photographer, Aviram Valdman, and I came to visit the Ketura Sun solar field, we were immediately handed individual bottles of water. You don’t walk around Ketura without water, we were told. You get dehydrated pretty quickly.

So how come nobody else has ever thought of harnessing solar energy in Israel, even though a third of its territory is a sprawling, sun-drenched desert? “Actually,” Abramowitz smiles, “somebody did. His name was [David] Ben-Gurion.” Indeed, here is a startling 1956 quote from Israel’s first prime minister:

The largest and most impressive source of energy in our world and the source of life for every plant and animal, yet a source so little used by mankind is the sun… solar energy will continue to flow toward us almost indefinitely.

Ben-Gurion initiated the nationwide use of solar power for water heaters, making Israel the first country in the world to use solar power for this purpose.

As almost everyone knows, Ben-Gurion also had a thing for the desert. He loved it, and had a grand vision for developing the Arava. Maybe it was his relentless, stubborn nature. Seeing an obstacle before his young state, he just had to overcome it. If the state could conquer the desert, he thought, it could achieve anything.

Abramowitz is eager to take up where Ben-Gurion left off. “We always believed that if there are benefits for the residents of the Arava, the desert will finally bloom,” he says, “so all of Arava Power’s efforts are directed at the Arava.” By the end of 2015, Arava Power’s eight solar fields will provide the entire electric supply for Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. That’s a remarkable achievement by global standards, but the road to it was mighty dusty. “We had a hundred battles to win,” Abramowitz recalls.

There were four reasons why nobody touched solar energy in Israel until we came along. First, back then producing solar energy was more expensive than coal. Second, the electricity system of the country simply wasn’t set up for it. It was set up for placing and delivery, not for planning and improvement. Third, there was a lot of ignorance regarding the matter. And on top of it all, there were 24 government branches you needed to go through. So we made a list of a hundred political, regulatory, and statutory battles we had to win to de-risk the market so investment could come in. A hundred battles. Because money is very conservative and conservative powers were hard at work against us. Apparently, Israel didn’t have the foresight to understand where the global power market is heading. Five freakin’ years it took, but we won a hundred out of a hundred.
This fit of entrepreneurism and industrialism is out of character for Abramowitz. If one looks at his record from the previous thirty years, to call him a very active activist would sum it up quite nicely. For years, Abramowitz was at the forefront of international activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry, serving as president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) from 1997-2007, being co-nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. Abramowitz managed to get arrested outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC and, while serving as the chairperson of the UCSJ, went on a two-week hunger strike on behalf of Prisoner of Zion Alexei Magarik, who was subsequently released and moved to Israel. He was the last Prisoner of Zion in the USSR.

It wasn’t his first hunger strike, or his only arrest. He channeled his energies into the Soviet Jewry movement only after he concluded his previous battle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, which occasioned his first hunger strike, in protest of Boston University’s investments in the country. As a reward, he was banned from South Africa.

In between—or maybe it was before or after, it’s not easy to keep up with Yossi when it comes to things he’s done on behalf of others—Abramowitz took on the cause of the Ethiopian Jews, and in 1987 was arrested for a second time for protesting outside the World Zionist Congress. He weaves a tangled web of awards and arrests.

But his jump out of character jumpstarted a whole new level of activism—call it “activism 2.0”: Harnessing the power of investment on behalf of renewable energy. “When we look at Africa,” he notes, “they need power much more than we do. Eighty percent of the population there has no power. For me as an activist, if you want to help them with infrastructure and education and agriculture, you are going to need power.”

Yosef Abramowitz (right) receives the Bonei Zion Prize from Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset.

Yosef Abramowitz (right) receives the Bonei Zion Prize from Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset.

Abramowitz may talk big, but it is only because he thinks big. He’s looking for sweeping, sustainable solutions to existing problems. If we look at “normal” charitable activity, such as feeding a school of hungry children in Africa, we see food and volunteers being flown across oceans. The children are fed; but after the volunteers leave, the food runs out. When Abramowitz looks at a school of hungry children, he sees a nearby solar field providing power to a water desalination plant that supplies an advanced irrigation system.

His solutions might take a hundred battles to achieve, but he seems unfazed by such things.

I see myself as a very lucky activist. Because when you are an activist, you rely on non-profits, on donations and charity. I worked like that for 30 years. But then we came across Israel and Africa; and you can’t light up the night for 80 percent of the African population with donations. At that point we realized we needed a business model. Because there is an endless amount of investible money in the world; and if you could apply it to activism through a business model, well, there you have it.

It’s a profound realization. Activism is infamous for being underfunded, always on the lookout for the next quick fix of cash. What Abramowitz and his partners did was to ground their activism in capitalism, to enable investors to profit from helping populations in need and thus attract funding to their work. The grid-level solar field in Rwanda is just the beginning for Energiya Global. They have already signed deals in south and east Africa, and are looking toward west Africa next. Deals in the Caribbean and other Middle Eastern countries are in the pipeline.

Abramowitz looks at the world and talks about helping those in need as an expression of Zionism. When I point out to him that Zionism usually occupies itself with Israel and Jews, and his “outward Zionism” is refreshing, he immediately waves his hand and declines the credit once again. “It was [early Zionist intellectual] Ahad Ha’am’s vision,” he says, “not mine. Ahad Ha’am said Israel should be a center of excellence and ethics for the world.” In the words of Ahad Ha’am himself, “Judaism… shall have as its focus point the ideal of our nation’s unity and its free development through the expression of universal human values on the terms of its own distinctive spirit.” It seems that Abramowitz is crafting his own brand of Zionism based on the ideas of his personal hero. It is a form of Zionism that looks inward to Judaism as its core principle, but seeks to use Jewish traditions and values in order to better the entire world; even, and sometimes especially, the non-Jewish world.

“The planet is running out of time and I believe Jewish people have a special role to play,” he asserts.

We are a global people. We are a global, hopeful, ethical people. We need a global and ethical campaign to save our planet. Just because it hadn’t been done yet doesn’t mean it can’t be done, right? We have a chance to fulfill our role in history for the first time. Look at the world—it needs food, it needs water, it needs energy. We can grow anything anywhere. Netafim [the Israeli company that invented drip irrigation] took care of that. Water—we are a global leader in water technologies. And we now know how to produce green energy. Energy, water, and food are interrelated; you need energy to produce water and you need water to grow food. Jewish people literally have in their hands the power to save the planet.

Abramowitz’s candid optimism is hard to swallow at first. We are living in cynical times, when openhearted care and compassion aren’t always the social norm. But after spending some time with him, the barriers wear down, and even if you don’t agree with his line of thinking, you start to believe it. Such as when he says things like, “We have the potential to be a superpower of goodness in the world.” He doesn’t say “a solar superpower” or a “water superpower,” he says “goodness.”

It’s a striking comment to hear from anyone who isn’t a New Age enthusiast or living in California. The Dalai Lama talks about goodness. So does Pope Francis. But businessmen, entrepreneurs, and investors usually don’t. Abramowitz talks about goodness the same way he talks about solar energy—as a tangible thing. For him, goodness exists in the world; it is as real as anything else, and he intends to use it.

Why does he care so much?

Why not care? I believe everybody cares, but people just feel they are too small and insignificant to cause change. They need to be empowered. I was empowered at a very young age. My first activism as a kid was against nuclear power. My mom took me to a civil disobedience protest against the building of a nuclear plant near Cambridge. Police, tear gas, chaos… it was a great empowering experience for me. I drank the Kool Aid and I couldn’t go back. Because once you realize you can drive change through individual activism and make a difference, really help, of course you do it.
It seems that for Abramowitz everything is activism in one form or another. He recognizes a need and acts to fulfill it. This led to perhaps the most ambitious project of his life: His recent campaign to succeed Shimon Peres as president of Israel.

He didn’t win. That honor went to Reuven Rivlin, the former Speaker of the Knesset, after a particularly ugly campaign. But the effort was a major step up for Abramowitz—an attempt to bring about positive change in the most direct possible way.

What was the change he hoped to bring about? To depoliticize the institution of the presidency. The President of Israel is not elected by the people, but by the members of the Knesset—120 votes cast behind drawn curtains. This has resulted in a completely partisan electoral process in which each candidate needs to lobby his own party first, and then secure votes from other parties in order to win. Backroom deals are commonplace, as are brutal attempts at personal destruction by opposing candidates. As a result, the presidency has lost its allure for many Israelis. Indeed, over the last few years there have been calls for the abolition of the office, most recently by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

Abramowitz disagrees. “We have to make a decision as a country,” he says.

Do we want the brand equity of the presidency to represent aging politicians at the end of their political life, or Israeli innovation at its prime? The presidency should be about ideas and the campaign isn’t about ideas. It’s about power plays and political tribal grabs. Someone should run on the basis of ideas.

And he definitely has ideas. Abramowitz’s vision for the presidency is strikingly different from other candidates. He sees it as a vehicle for driving foreign investment to Israel; a way to de-risk the Israeli market and to help Israel become a more integral part of the world around it. While other candidates talked about themselves and why they were worthy of the office, Abramowitz talked about social and religious pluralism in Israel, and the green revolution Israel is capable of leading.

Abramowitz’s chances of being elected were always slim, and his loss was all but inevitable. But that was not what his campaign was about. It was the next level in his lifelong activism; it was a protest, an attempt at presenting an alternative vision of a better Israel. And he does not see it as a failure, but another in the hundred battles that will end in success.

“That’s OK,” he says of his loss. “If not this time, so next time, in 2021. The important thing now is to create awareness of the issue. We will succeed. Just a few more battles to win. Next time around I’ll have more grey hair; maybe that’ll do the trick.”

Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower