Nir Topper resigned at the end of March this year after three years as Executive Director at the Galilee Foundation. Taking over from Rabbi Dr Marc Rosenstein, Nir was clear in his task: to refocus the Foundation on its core mission, rationalize its programs so that we funded only those which furthered that mission, and ensure that, as a registered amuta (non-profit association) it continued to live within its financial means.
We asked Nir about his time here.
Q. Describe yourself? What sort of person are you? Are you a family man? What are your pastimes? where were you born and brought up?
A. I was born 44 years ago in Petach Tikva, where my parents still live, but from the age of 22 I travelled and wandered around Israel and north and south America. For the past seven years I have lived in Yuvalim, a community close to Shorashim where the Foundation is based. Family is the centre of my life and where I draw my strength and I feel lucky to realise that! I have worked in copyrighting, as a madrich tiyulim (tour leader) in Israel, and as a youth leader for Young Judaea, a youth movement based in the US and Israel, and the Jewish Agency in north America and Israel. I have a degree in political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and I’m finishing my masters degree in political science from the University of Haifa and this is my passion and the prism through which I look out at the world. It was this that attracted me to Galilee Foundation: the connection it strives to make between society and government by exploring where our duties as individuals and civil society meet the responsibilities of the state. So many people think that the responsibilities we bear (if they even realise they bear them) should be the responsibilities of the state, and this is often reflected in Israelis’ attitude to NGOs. Because Israel was built on a strong, socialist ideology, many people still assume that government takes (or should take) all the roles in society, leaving a dissonance between what people think and the reality of state control. However in the last three decades the government went through deep capitalist processes of privatization etc, and people became part of the open, global, western world model and began to understand their options to effect personal change outside the state’s remit. Yet the outcome today is that society lacks any clear ideology that defines what we believe in: how ‘thin’ or ‘fat’ government should be, how involved individuals should be, and as a society we simply don’t deal with this lack. Thus sometimes things fall into holes, and an example is how we must live together with ‘the other.’ The only solution, I believe, is education, but currently there is very little in the school system, no discussion about ‘the other,’ about separation of ‘church’ and state etc. My issue with this is not about promoting any particular overall change or ideology, but simply that we don’t even think about the issues! How does this impact our children? Can we tell them to follow their own paths when this may lead to issues or conflicts in Israeli society, forever stuck between orthodoxy and liberalism/pluralism?
Q. What attracted you to the Galilee Foundation? Were you always interested in the issues with which the Foundation deals?
A. As I said I used to work for Young Judea, the Jewish Agency and other organizations and I came with groups to participate in the activities of the Foundation, and grew fascinated by its activities and values. I always wanted that the activities the Foundation was engaged in would be more common; though I was born and raised in Israel, I was a madrich (leader) of 25-30 the first time I sat with Arab teens, and only then because I happened to bring a group. In these remarkably simple yet powerful encounters you talk: maybe only a conversation about each others’ lives, what we share; so simple, so radical. So I was already attracted to the Foundation when we moved, as a young family, to Yuvalim. I had been working elsewhere for two educational programs, and when the time came to look for my next move I was lucky to hear that the Foundation was looking to replace Marc after he retired. I put myself forward and went through a recruitment process and considered myself so lucky to get it.
Q. Can the Foundation really make a difference long term, when each time a politician or leader speaks with violent words it threatens to topple the grassroots work that has been achieved?
A. I know, it can seem demoralizing, like when some bully comes and destroys what you have built up. But you have to keep trying. You go back and see what it is you want to deal with, what’s the problem. What is really the problem? The problem is not that we don’t talk and meet, that is what leads to the problem. The problem is, at root, that we have a racist, violent society; verbally, physically. We have to deal with this if we want a better present and future. We cannot let go. We have to keep going. My own personal experience at the Foundation is that the people we touch and their families are influenced by our programs. But my next question is this: is it enough? I believe that all similar foundations like ours, engaged in different, novel and successful means of tackling the problem, should come together and work as one, whereas the reality is that we all compete for the same resources, each with our own overheads. As a movement for change we are thus spread too thin, wasting money, resources, time, energy and influence. NGOs in our field are divided between grassroots organisations and those addressing policy making and the bigger picture. Usually the former are smaller; but they should be combined, sharing knowledge and experience. I tried to address this issue by developing our experience into an umbrella body with academic interests – the Center for Intergroup Understanding – but we failed through lack of energy and resource. But I still think it can and should work; the benefits need to be sold to other organisations.
Q. What changes did you have to make at the Foundation, and why?
A. Well, I didn’t need to change the vision as I saw how the staff were committed to a very clear vision. But I did have to make difficult structural and budget changes – huge ones in fact, based on three elements. We suffered from a very narrow source of fundraising income, there were external changes going on in the fundraising world creating new difficulties in raising money, and we had an inherited budget deficit to be dealt with.
Q. What was the hardest thing you had to do at the Foundation?
A. Letting people go.
Q. What did you like best about working at the Foundation?
A. Meeting people who are committed to their work. I mean the staff, who are not well paid, not in the best job conditions, but they believe in the vision and work for it every day. But equally I was inspired by finding that there are more people who think like us: Jews, Arabs, and every myriad label you can think of, who really want to have a better, shared, safe society for themselves and their kids.
Q. Why did you decide to resign now?
A. Part of the recovery plan I put in place was looking at the manpower map and finding out what we should do better, or how the structure should look so that we could both afford it and achieve our goals. Eventually the position of the Executive Director became a part of this process and I recognised that it should be a different role, perhaps merged with another position or with a different profile of person with different skills.
Q. What are you doing now?
A. At present I am working freelance for educational programs of the Joint (JDC) and others. Slowly I am thinking about what I want to do longer term.
Q. Where do you see yourself in five years?
A. Somehow or other involved in the most fascinating and crucial area of my interest, as I mentioned, which is the connection between society, community and government.
Q. What is your biggest regret of your time at the Foundation?
A. I regret that I wasn’t able to implement the recovery plan from day one; it took a few months to understand the situation thoroughly and to act, and precious time was lost.
Q. What are you most proud of from your time at the Foundation?
A. That I made the changes that were necessary to enable the Foundation to continue, when the black and white reality perhaps indicated that it was time to close! Not to give up, even though all the reasons in the world were to close! It would have been a huge shame not to continue with the wonderful creation of Marc and the staff.
Thank you for your time, Nir - we wish you well!