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Yaakov Israel for TIME

Q&A with Israeli Social Entrepreneur Adi Altschuler

Sep 12, 2014

How did your relationship with Kfir Kobi, the boy with cerebral palsy you volunteered to spend time with when you yourself were quite young, develop into a realization that this could be something bigger?

I started to volunteer with Kfir when I was 12, and he was just a three-year-old boy. He made me realize that there is no such thing as disability and that we all have disabilities. His parents looked at him as if he was 100% perfect and that’s the way he looked at himself. During the years I saw that his biggest strength was his social abilities and his sense of humor, but the opportunities for children and youth with special needs were different from “normal kids,” so the opportunity to experience simple childhood is very different. During the years of growing up next to him it’s something that really bothered me. Through him I met a lot of kids and I saw that they don’t have this kind of environment that allows them to be like every kid, to play. When I was 16 I joined a leadership development program called LEAD, and they asked me to think of something that bothered me. I knew that the thing that bothered me most was the lack of opportunities for these kids to experience a simple childhood and contribute to society.

Kfir was like a brother to me; we were friends. I didn’t see myself like a volunteer coming to help the poor, disabled kid. I saw myself like a big sister. I decided to duplicate the model of Kfir and Adi – the personal – to a group. We started with one branch and after a year and a half, we had four branches with 100 kids. And today, Krembo Wings operates 35 branches with 3,000 teenagers all around the country.

You’re now stepping down from your role president of Krembo Wings. Why are you now handing it over to others to run it?

The decision of bringing in other people to run it started in 2008. I felt that the organization needs other people with different skills to take it to the next level. I flew to India to travel for a year by myself, and then we had other people to operate the organization. When I was in India, Kfir passed away. In 2009, at the memorial ceremony for Kfir, I went to visit his grave, and while I was walking to the cemetery I got a phone call from the President’s House, from Shimon Peres’ staff, and they said, "Hi Adi, we’re really happy to tell you won the award for social change." And then the next sentence was, "Krembo Wings is receiving this award." At that point I knew we’re doing something good because it’s not about me anymore, it’s about the organization. And in the past few years, the management and the people who joined the organization took it to the next level. It’s almost a year now that I took a step back and now I’m letting go totally – it’s difficult but it’s the right thing to do.

How did you relationship with Kfir impact you?

Kfir was my greatest teacher. I loved him and he loved me. He taught me so many things. To believe in myself, to dream, to accept my own disabilities, to go beyond them. To me it’s like he still exists. I see a little of him in every teenager and child I meet. I still miss him. I think I was really lucky to meet him and to meet his family. His mother, Claudia, is one of the people who influenced me the most. She’s one of the most creative people I ever met. She always found ways for him to be a part of things. [I learned] to meet someone and see beyond the wheelchair, because we all have wheelchairs. The point is to see what you can learn from the people you meet. Anyone, everywhere can be your teacher …so it’s like a sixth sense of seeing what people can do rather than what they can’t, because what they can’t they already know.

More recently, you founded Memories@Home. How did that come about?

Holocaust Remembrance Day is pretty big in Israel and the memory of the Holocaust is something that influences our daily lives. A few years ago, when the Holocaust Memorial Day arrived, I felt very disconnected. You know, I know all the stories, my husband’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors, but it felt so far away – that the day doesn’t fulfill the potential of what I can take out of this. Usually go somewhere to a big ceremony, you sit in the audience, and you just listen. But I felt, in order to connect, I need to be engaged. I started to imagine that maybe we should do something different. Maybe we should make it a day we can connect to universal and Jewish values, to connect this lesson to being better people. So I emailed eight friends to tell them what I was thinking – and 50 people came to my house, people I didn’t know.

You invited a Holocaust survivor to talk to the group. What happened afterwards?

We started to ask ourselves hard questions. Do we have an obligation to act differently today because our people went through a Holocaust? Where is this day going to be 10 years from now? How do we accept other people? And then I got lots of phone calls after this evening, saying, "Listen, it was one of the most influential, meaningful days I’ve had in my life." I started to look in the mirror and see places where I victimize others. A few friends joined to ask the same questions. This year we had 800 houses that hosted thousands of people for Memories@Home. I got phone calls from Holocaust survivors who said for the first time in my life, I’m not passive, I’m proactive, people embrace me and want to hear me and my story and they really want to hear about the things that happened, in order to be better people today.

Why did you decide to take a position at Google?

Two-a-half years ago, I went to look for my next thing. I knew that it doesn’t matter where I am, I will go for education because it is an amazing instrument to empower people. I heard they were working on education in Israel. When I came, they told me, we care about education in Israel, we have the innovation and technology, we really want to narrow the gap between students and teachers, we want to help transform the education system so it will fit the 21st century. I was really excited about that. To date we trained 35,000 teachers around the country – innovation, pedagogy, and new ways of teaching and integrating technology in class to make learning magical again. It’s pretty amazing.

When you meet someone who wants to start an organisation oriented towards social activism, what do you tell them?
It’s really simple. First of all, maybe it will sound clichéd, but the key is really to imagine. To think of reality as it is right now and to picture the world as if it were different. What is the change you want to see? And then, not to ask for permission. It’s like bungee-jumping – you just need to jump. If you have a clear vision for your mission and you’re not asking permission and you’re just going without being scared to fail. And to remember, there’s nothing you can do in this world alone if you want to create a change. You need to take the problem that keeps you from sleeping at night, and to have a clear vision of where to go.

Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

I have lots of dreams. I have a small notebook and in it every morning I write down my dreams. I don’t know where I’ll be five years from now, but I know that I’ll be in the field. To really touch people’s lives and to help them transform, you need to be in the field. My biggest dream since I was really young is to be a rabbi, but not in the religious aspect. In Judaism, like other religions, you have a lot of amazing tools and values you can use to transform lives. Maybe I can use religion and Jewish values and maybe values from other religions to help people transform their lives. I dream of establishing a school – maybe a new school system – that will be a bit like Krembo Wings, in the inclusivity aspect. I think I will build a community, like maybe a new city, a new place that will be based on people’s skills and passions, and through that we’ll build projects for society. I think as long as I’ll be connected to this deep place that cannot sit, cannot hold still, and just really needs to see change, to go after my dreams, I’ll be okay.

interview by Ilene Prusher. This interview has been condensed and edited.

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