Adam and Gerry discuss Gerry’s involvement with the incredible Lone Soldier Program (Heseg) in Israel, fighting the BDS movement, and bringing the Israeli community throughout North America together with the Jewish community at large. Gerry is the founder and Chairman of a multi-billion dollar private equity firm, one of Canada’s most generous philanthropists, and is a life-long advocate for the state of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.


Adam Milstein: This is Adam Milstein, welcome to my podcast. Today I’m excited to have a very accomplished entrepreneur and passionate Jewish leader on our program. Gerry Schwartz is the founder and the chairman of Onex Corporation, a private equity firm that has more than $22 billion of assets under managements. He’s one of Canada’s most generous philanthropists. He’s also a lifelong advocate for the state of Israel and the Jewish people and an important voice in the fight against BDS and anti-Semitism. Gerry, thank you very much for being on the program and for inviting me to your Malibu beach home.


Gerry Schwartz: Adam, you’re a very, very welcome guest and I must say that your introduction was far more generous than is appropriate.


Adam Milstein: I think you deserve every word of it and as I said it’s my pleasure. You have successfully built a multi-billion dollar business from the ground up. You are known to have one of the sharpest investment minds in the game but you are not only a savvy businessman, you’re also a very active philanthropist. Why are you investing so heavily in philanthropy, what do you get out of it and what is your ROI?


Gerry Schwartz: All good questions, Adam, all good questions. When you say investing so heavily in philanthropy, I’m not sure I see it as an investment that would have an ROI, I don’t think that’s the way to measure it. I think what you have to do is find organizations who are trying to accomplish … organizations or individuals, who are trying to accomplish things that you believe in and what you are doing philanthropically is simply giving them the means, the oil for the machine, giving them the means to reach out and accomplish your own objectives. For example my largest area of philanthropy, by far, is Israel and the Israeli people, Israeli leadership and I don’t live in Israel, as you know. I’m limited by the amount of time I can spend there. I’m limited by the impact that I can have there and so by finding organizations that I can contribute to that will extend the reach of the values that I care about is the reason for me to care so much about philanthropy. It’s not an ROI, I don’t think there is a measurable ROI nor should you even think of it in those terms.


Adam Milstein: Thank you Gerry, all good answers. Your incredible lone soldier project in Israel known as HESEG, which means triumph in English, has changed the lives of thousands. Why are you investing and maybe I shouldn’t say investing …


Gerry Schwartz: It’s all right.


Adam Milstein: Why are you committing to the Israel lone soldiers, who are they and what’s the impact of HESEG?


Gerry Schwartz: This is my favorite subject so thank you for raising it. There are young men and women from around the world who choose to leave their home, their family, their support system and move to Israel. Of course when they do that they have to join the army as all Israelis do but for the most part, for more than 90% of them, they are actually going to Israel intending to, wanting to join the army. It’s not just simply they get there and have an obligation, it’s that they’ve gone there wanting to take on the responsibility of being in the defense of Israel.


There are each year about, roughly, between 5 and 6,000 of these called lone soldiers who are in the IDF at any one time. Roughly, 1500 of them a year have finished their service and are coming out. The army takes very good care of them while they are there. Although it’s sometimes a bit of a lonely life for them, they don’t have mom to go home to on the weekend, do their laundry. They go home and do their own. These people face a real dilemma. The dilemma is, “Can I stay in Israel? Can I afford to stay in Israel?” Almost all of them want to stay in Israel but it’s very hard to do so because they have no support, no family, limited education because of the age they came at and it’s a real hardship in front of them. I think it’s very, very important to the growth and strength of Israel that it’s population multiply. These people who are volunteers and have made commitment to the defense of Israel I think are even more valuable to be the ones to stay on and grow Israel.


In order to make it easier for them, we accept applications. We get about 900 applications. Of the 1500 coming out of the army, we get about 900 applications and we take about 150 of those per year. What we say to them is, “You have to, on your own, get accepted to a university in Israel. Once you show us that you’ve been accepted we’ll pay your tuition, all your tuition, your room and board and a little expense money, and we’ll do that for as long as you remain in full-time university.” There’s only two things we ask in return. One is a statement and there’s no actual obligation we can impose on them, but a statement that it’s their intention to remain in Israel permanently. Second, that they’ll do ten hours a month, minimum, 120 hours a year of community service. I can tell you on both those commitments, we’re over 99% of our graduates have stayed in Israel. We now have about roughly between 900 and 1000 graduates living in Israel. The number of hours of community service they do always, always far exceeds the 120 commitment. Usually after they’re out of university they continue that commitment.


What I see we’re doing is we’re planting seeds. I’m like Johnny Appleseed. I’m planting little seeds of people in Israel and you watch them. You watch the careers they come out of, engineering, doctor, law, psychology, water science. Whatever it is, you can just see a whole new tree flourishing in Israel. I get to sit in the shade of the tree.


Adam Milstein: Great, this is an incredible program and I can see how satisfied you are with the impact at the results. Gerry, the Pew Research Center has studied the Jewish community in America extensively and has noticed a shift in the way young Jews feel about their Jewish identity. How do you view this challenge? How can we make our young generation proud to be Jewish, proud of their heritage and proud of their connection to Israel?


Gerry Schwartz: Let’s separate those questions. How do I view the challenge? Let me tell you. A good friend of mind, Israeli, living in New York. A former F-16 pilot, very committed to Israel, is writing a book now called “Extinction”.


Adam Milstein: I spoke about the book last night. Tal Keinan


Gerry Schwartz: Yeah, Tal Keinan. Tal by the way, is on the advisory board of HESEG, and has been for years. Tal is writing a book, and the title is quite dramatic, “Extinction”. One of the very things that he’s saying which I know is my same answer to you, is that the greatest threat to the Jewish people is our success. Historically we move or get pushed from country to country. We work hard, we get educated, we become part of the community and we’re always seeking approval. We’re always seeking to be considered a loyal German. A loyal Pole, a loyal Lithuanian, whatever it is. In America, the largest home of Jews in the world, largest or second largest just behind Israel. What’s happening is that we are being accepted, we are finding a home and we are becoming American or Canadian. As we do that, we stop fighting for being Jewish. Now I’m talking about Jewish people, not the religion.


The challenge is that our own success potentially leads to, if not extinction, leads to a real diminishment of what we stand for as Jews. So, my thoughts are in consideration of the Jews as a people rather than Jews as a religion.


How do we fight it? How do we make them proud? I think we each have to find our own way. My granddaughter who lives here in Santa Monica, went to Israel last Sunday night. I just received a picture from her today of her standing with a bunch of lone soldiers. What’s dramatic about it is here is this 17 year old girl and all the people standing around arm in arm are carrying automatic weapons. There’s a certain pride in seeing that. I think you have to seek that challenge individually. The problem is 70% or more don’t seek the challenge. 70% or more are happy to be assimilated. Happy to be American. Not worry about being Jews and they have no interest in their religion. After a while with no interest in religion you end up with no interest in being a people.


Good question is, we talked about this at Passover this year. Can you be a people without religion? Can you be a Jewish people without being committed to the Jewish religion?


Adam Milstein: Good question.


Gerry Schwartz: We debated it. It’s a lot more interesting than following the Seder.


Adam Milstein: To be debated in next Seder. I want to hear your perspective as a Canadian. What unique role can the Jewish community in Canada play as part of the bigger Jewish community in the world? Do you think the Jews in Canada have a different perspective or different capabilities to contribute than Jews in the United States?


Gerry Schwartz: I want to answer that in two parts again. First of all in Canada so far, we’re pretty successful about having the Jews feel strongly about the Jewish people, about Israel, about the things that you and I care about. For example, Toronto, which is a city of roughly 4.5 million people, Toronto is the highest per capita contributor to UJA in the world. Has been for years and years and years. There is a pretty good commitment and it’s grown up there, I can’t tell you exactly why.


As to the last part of your question, Canadians I don’t think have a different capability than Americans, to care about these issues and be part of it. You’ve I’m sure been to Canada. You go across the border, you have no way to tell that you’re not in the United States. Same cars, Buicks and Cadillacs and Mercedes and whatever. The newspapers tell the same headline. The television stations are ABC, CBS, and NBC, plus of course Canada broadcasting, but it’s a plus. Canadians and Americans, that’s why it’s the longest undefended border in the world. I don’t think we have a special capability.


Adam Milstein: Thank you Gerry. As you know I’m the national chairman of the Israeli American Council. Or the IAC. The fastest growing Jewish organization in the U.S. As a Canadian, do you see the need to unite the Israeli Canadian community as a sister organization along with the IAC?


Gerry Schwartz: I wouldn’t say that I see a need, I’m focusing on the word need. I think I’d rather focus on offering an additional opportunity. You’re doing things in uniting the American … the Israelis living in America. I think it’s equally applicable to Israelis living in Canada. Quite frankly the Israeli community as best as I see it, I don’t claim to have any expertise about this, but as I see it is not well integrated into the overall community affairs in Canada. I suspect you’re not a lot different in the U.S., but you’ve at least got an organization working on this issue. It would be very helpful to have you reach into Canada and the ideas, the work that you’re doing, made available to Canadians who care about it. Who might care about it, who I’m sure many Israelis in America who didn’t seem to get very integrated or care until you reached them. Until you talked to them, until you’ve explained why. Same is true in Canada. You could do the same the benefit, you could bring your benefit to our country.


Adam Milstein: Excellent. Lastly Gerry, I’m very involved in the fight against BDS. I want to ask you, how do you see this challenge? Is  BDS dangerous just for Israel or is it also a threat to Canada and the U.S.? What can we do as a local Jewish community to fight against BDS and anti-Semitism?


Gerry Schwartz: First of all, it is a danger and it’s a danger to more than just Israel. The BDS movement, which often you see on campuses or unions, is usually lead by professional agitators. It’s not lead by kids on campus, though they all jump on the bandwagon and think it’s very cool and very liberal and they’ll be part of it. The fact is it’s often paid agitators brought in by the communities that hate Israel, hate Jews and I’d never let them get away with saying they hate Israel but love Jews. That’s just BS. I think it is really dangerous. As I said, it is terribly dangerous to Israel because it denigrates the position of Israel in the world. They use words like apartheid, that have no bearing whatsoever to what is going on in Israel. Yet, as soon as you say apartheid to ordinary Americans, Canadians, they think of South Africa, they think of the terrible things that were done. None of that exists in Canada, but it’s a label that if you just say it often enough and think that’s what these BDS people are doing. Saying it often enough that innocent people hear it.


Bad for Israel. Bad for our countries, Canada and the United States, because what we’re doing in allowing that is that we’re allowing these people to spew anti-Semitism, who spew hatred, to have a voice and be heard. We have to fight them in every single place we can. As Churchill said, “We go to fight them in the hills, we got to fight them on the streets, we got to fight them at the river’s edge, got to fight them in every way we can.”


Adam Milstein: Thank you Gerry. It’s a pleasure to partner with you in the fight for the state of Israel and against BDS and anti-Semitism.


Gerry Schwartz: Adam, thank you very much for taking the time with me today. Congratulations on creating a spectacular organization that’s becoming very well know. It only happens with personal commitment and I know you’ve lead that charge. Thanks for having me here.


Adam Milstein: Thank you Gerry. For the record, I am one of a team of people who founded the IAC, it’s a pleasure to be part of the founding team and to be national of the fabulous organization. Thanks again.


Gerry Schwartz: Congratulations again.