When Adi Altschuler was 12 years old and living in the city of Hod HaSharon she volunteered to spend time with a freckle-faced 3-year-old boy with cerebral palsy named Kfir Kobi. “He was like a brother to me. We were close friends and I used to tell him all my secrets,” she says. As the years went by, Altschuler realized that most children who lived with disabling conditions like cerebral palsy didn’t have a friend like her – or any friends at all.
With her sense of activism growing, Altschuler joined LEAD, a non-profit youth leadership organization that gives Israeli teenagers experience in planning, implementing and managing community projects. At LEAD, she was asked to think about a problem that troubled her. What if every boy like Kfir, she wondered, could have an able-bodied, older friend like her? A mentor and carer who might expose them to new experiences, a person who was not a member of their family and who might make them feel less isolated from society and their peers. The idea for a new youth movement was born, and she named it Krembo Wings. (A Krembo is a chocolate-covered marshmallow treat popular among Israeli children.)
After just one year of recruiting people and funds, Altschuler found herself running an organization that had four branches in four cities and town and 100 participants. Today, 11 years later, Krembo Wings has 35 branches across Israel with over 3,000 volunteers in any given year running after-school activities for children with special needs. The teenage participants run most of the organization and pass it on to others when they graduate high school.
“In the beginning, we were just a bunch of 16-year-olds. We didn’t know how to say vision or strategy or business plan,” says Altschuler, 27, speaking at her home in Tel Aviv.
Israel is a country often in the news for its conflicts with its neighbors and for internal tensions, even between Israeli Jews. But there’s a less immediately visible Israel that thrives even while the conflicts continue to flare – an Israel of high-tech start-ups, a thriving cultural scene and a burgeoning social entrepreneurship movement. Altschuler is part of that Israel. Krembo Wings has become a model of the country’s contemporary strain of volunteerism. Altschuler now mentors other social entreprenuers and has more recently founded an organization that encourages Israelis to think differently about the impact of the Holocaust. Her day job also lets her contribute to Israeli society — she’s the Israel manager of Google for Education, a Google department she says trains tens of thousand of Israeli teachers in new ways of teaching and integrating technology in classrooms “to make learning magical again.”
But it is Krembo Wings, from which she is now stepping down as president, that put her on the map as an innovator. In 2009, she and Krembo Wings were awarded one of Israel’s most respected prizes, the Presidential Award for Volunteerism. (Kfir passed away six years ago, but Altschuler stays in regular touch with his mother. Altschuler says it is Kfir’s mother, Claudia, who has had the greatest influence on her. “She’s one of the most creative people I ever met,” she says. “She always found ways for Kfir to be a part of things.“)
Many of the people Altschuler has worked with say she has helped them find their own paths in social activism. Shir Lazarovits, 18, recently stepped down as the head of the Krembo Wings branch in Modi’in, a city halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Not only does she look up to Altschuler as a role model, but says the leadership opportunity Krembo Wings afforded her has changed her life.
“To give a girl of 16 the responsibility for 70 or more volunteers and all the special-need kids involved is incredible: You feel that you’re in charge of something important and it makes you grow up fast. You learn about management and how to deal with the difficult situations. Adults tell me they had to get to the age of 30 to get to a position of being responsible for so many people,” says Lazarovits. “Adi convinced me that I can do great things going forward. She doesn’t rest. It’s as if there’s something in her blood: She’s a woman of doing, of creativity, and you almost want to be infected by it.”
Although Altschuler has served as president since she founded Krembo Wings, she’s been gradually handing the reins over to others, and is in the process of stepping down as president. She made that decision wanting to avoid “founder’s syndrome,” in which an organization or company revolves too tightly around its creator. She is also spending more of her non-Google time guiding the Holocaust project she founded just over three years ago. Altschuler realized then that she, like many other young Israelis, had increasingly felt emotionally disconnected from Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. She was unenthusiastic about the country’s ways of marking the day with a big national ceremony, stopping for two minutes of silence and watching Holocaust documentaries on television. She sent out an e-mail to eight friends saying she wanted to do something different, and would be inviting a concentration camp survivor to her house. Fifty people showed up, most of them crashers she’d never seen before. Once the camp survivor, a woman named Hana Grofit, had told her story and left Altschuler’s family home in Hod HaSharon, the group began discussing what they had heard. “It was very intimate and inspiring,” Altschuler recalls.
The reaction to what she initiated on that night in 2011 was so strong that who’d attended called to ask for more, adding that they knew others who wanted to join. It’s now called Zicharon B’Salon (or “Memories@Home”) and on this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day there were 800 such meetings in Israel and in other countries, with some members of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, hosting meetings in their own homes.
Lior Reichart, 28, was at that original meeting and was encouraged by Altschuler to be one of the organizers of future events. “I feel that most Israelis don’t understand how much the Holocaust is a significant part of our personalities and how it affects the political discussion in Israel,” Reichart explains. “The narrative is usually really narrow on this day: We see lots of ceremonies, but there’s no real conversation or debate about how it affects us today.” With Memories@Home, he says, that’s beginning to change.
“Adi knows how to recognize a vacuum,” says Reichart, who recently graduated from law school. “Secondly, she knows how to push it forward and recruit people, to take people with her, to take it a step beyond. Those two qualities – of course there are many more – are what make Adi who she is.”
Altschuler is often asked if she’ll go into politics. “Never say never,” is her answer, though she turned down several invitations to join various parties during the last national vote. She leans towards founding her own school – or school system. She says she might want to be a rabbi someday, though she considers herself a secular if spiritual person. She’s trying to decide what her next big challenge will be. For now, she’s pleased with helping other social entrepreneurs launch their dreams. Her advice: don’t ask anyone for permission, and don’t try to go it alone. We’re all connected now, more than ever – and we’re stronger for it.