Adi Sterenberg: We are going to bring programs to the table that will take children and produce good strong leaders, officers and business people.Israel may be the only democracy in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean everything runs smooth as clockwork. Building a country is a process, and just like the United States at age 56, there are a myriad of problems and wrinkles to be worked out.
Meet Adi Sterenberg, the Israeli with the iron. His organization – the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) – is intent on rectifying what he sees as the number one problem in Israeli society – the lack of knowledge among the population about Israeli democracy, and the rights and responsibilities of a citizen living in such a democracy.
“Israelis are generally ignorant of their rights, their duties, their power to provoke change. Israeli society is like a flock of sheep – being led around. If this were Sweden of Switzerland, that would be fine, but our society can not afford to be sheep. There are too many problems,” Sterenberg told ISRAEL21c during an interview at a coffee shop in Jerusalem.
“People go about their daily business – they go out and enjoy themselves, come to cafes like this. But one day – maybe tomorrow morning – everything will collapse,” he added for effect.
Sterenberg, a young, energetic go-getter with rich past experience in government (as an advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office and in the Interior Ministry), feels that unless organizations like CECI take charge, that collapse is imminent. And he says, the solution is simple – education.
“I think the problem starts when Israelis are young children. Only 3% of the schools in the country provide a social studies education on democracy – no the history of the country and Zionism, but ‘what is democracy really all about?’, ‘What is my responsibility to society and what is society’s responsibility to me?’ said Sterenberg.
“We are going to bring programs to the table that will take children and produce good strong leaders, officers and business people. In the end, this is good for society and good for government. You can’t change the Knesset – I know it’s only 120 members, but it’s like changing the end of the world, it’s impossible. So what we’re doing is taking the long way – not the short cut.”
CECI was founded in 2003 with the mandate to become the foremost authority in the nation in the field of empowerment and emocratic education. Their goal is to initiate and establish learning centers for the purpose of education and research in governance and voting systems.
The catalyst behind CECI’s establishment is founder Isaac Parviz Nazarian, a Los Angeles-based Israeli businessman and philanthropist, as well as leader of the city’s Persian Jewish community.
“I’m an Israeli living in Los Angeles. I became very concerned about the instability of the Israeli government and started to do research to see how I could help,” Nazarian told ISRAEL21c from his LA office.
“CECI is patterned after the recommendations of President Moshe Katsav in remarks he made to the opening plenum of the current Knesset. He asked for private figures and experts to establish studies of the structure of government and how to improve it. We took that suggestion and came up with this idea to educate the people of Israel about their rights and how they can use them to become better citizens,” said Nazarian, who as a teen, fought and was wounded in the War of Independence in 1948.
“Isaac knows what’s going on here – he has family here, and there are lots of Israelis in LA. Also the Internet has made the world very small,” said Sterenberg.
Sterenberg and Nazarian will be hosting a gala fundraiser in Beverly Hills in October which they hope will provide the funding to implement many of the educational projects CECI has in the works.
“Our goal is to create support for these issues. Hopefully we’ll explain the idea behind our plan to the Jewish community of LA. We’re asking for financial and moral support,” said Nazarian.
According to Sterenberg, by June 2005, CECI expects to establish a national presence through its efforts within the existing framework of nonprofit organizations that deal with education, community involvement, and local opportunities. The ultimate goal? to formulate course curricula, create and hone an instructional methodology, and organize the various democracy projects being implemented all over Israel into a unified empowerment
“We’re working with some of the best non-profits in Israel that have developed amazing educational models – places like Midreshet Adam, the Israel Democracy Institute, the New Israel Fund, and we’re going into schools and into the army and we are doing empowerment,” said Sterenberg.
One trial program currently underway in the Israeli cities Rehovot, Kfar Sava and Ra’anana is a course for high school students on the subject of citizenship – what does the Israeli identity card (teudat zehut) really mean, what are it’s rights and responsibilities?
“In English, empowerment is a very strong world. But in Hebrew it doesn’t exist. In English, there’s a word called accountability – in Hebrew you won’t find it in the dictionary. We can’t afford to be a society like that,” said Sterenberg
If everybody were like Sterenberg, he might be resting easier instead of worrying about the country’s future. The 30-something Tel Avivian was recruited to CECI as director-general after a successful career in government and business, and he brings a passion and love of the country to his job.
“Look at me – I’m crazy,” he said finishing his capuchino. “I was in a very senior position in government. Instead I am doing something that is very ideological – I have lots anxiety at night when I go to sleep, asking myself ‘what am I doing? I should be out there earning money and taking care of myself.’ But I really believe in building up Israeli society, and it’s not something you can see results in minute to minute. It’s not like making money, it’s a process.”
But putting doubts aside, Sterenberg ends on an upbeat note, full of confidence that his mission will succeed.
“Today we have 5,500 people on our email list, Watch us in a half year from now, there will be one million – one million people who know there’s a problem and will empower themselves and their families to solve it.”