September 20, 2018

Kaptain Sunshine Shines His Light

Yosef Abramowitz

Yosef Abramowitz, the larger-than-life CEO of Israel’s Energiya Global, has been called many things: entrepreneur, activist, environmentalist, ambassador, prophet, futurist, authority, rebel, crazy. However, there is one moniker that all can agree on: Kaptain Sunshine (also his Twitter handle). A fitting name for the man leading the Jewish, and in some ways, global, charge to make the world a brighter place, both literally and figuratively.

Abramowitz is a leading figure in the solar energy revolution. At the helm of the multimillion dollar Energiya Global, a Jerusalem-based green energy developer focusing on building solar fields in Africa, Abramowitz tends to operate in some of the most remote places on the planet. Energiya Global projects are currently in various stages throughout more than 10 African countries, from Burundi to South Sudan.

Africa has more than 600 million people without access to electricity. It also has, as Abramowitz loves to point out, 11 of the 20 fastest-growing economies in the world. Where others see only challenges, he sees massive potential.

Energiya Global is first and foremost a private company seeking to generate profits, so there is, of course, the financial bottom line. Additionally, the company produces tremendous humanitarian, environmental and geopolitical game-changing results with each field it builds. Full of examples, Abramowitz is at his best when he is revved up about the snowball effect of solar power on all aspects of society. The reduction in gender-based violence when a local food market is lit at night. The predominance of diesel engines in Africa killing millions each year with toxic fumes. The support in the United Nations by African nations buoyed by Israeli technology.

Like the early Zionist leaders whom he so admires, Abramowitz is a man of action. In 2011, after moving to Kibbutz Ketura (near Eilat) with his family from the Boston area, he successfully built the first solar field in the Middle East. Despite the myriad of obstacles throughout the years, this pioneering project which will reach its full capacity in 2020, fulfilling its promise to power the entire Arava region by 100 percent solar energy during the day.

“My becoming an environmental activist isn’t because I am necessarily ‘green.’ It is because I am a human and a creation of God.” — Yosef Abramowitz

His success can be attributed to his comfort with risk, something he holds as a core Jewish value. He said, “Our work now of bringing solar to Africa via Energiya Global is largely about the art and science of risk mitigation.”

It is also a result of a lot of chutzpah, or as Abramowitz said, “pushing the boundaries of what is possible.” He reflected: “One of the great cultural features of Israel as Startup Nation is that so many people are celebrated for trying innovating, experimenting and dreaming.”

Deeply rooted in Abramowitz’s every action is a deep faith and respect for the Jewish tradition. “My becoming an environmental activist isn’t because I am necessarily ‘green,’ ” he said. “It is because I am a human and a creation of God.”

It is this perspective that helps him inspire so many around the globe, not just those who are friendly to the environmental movement or proponents of renewable energy. He reframes the imperative to change our polluting and wasteful ways from that of an environmental perspective to that of a human perspective.

“Perhaps we should be emphasizing, instead, the teaching that we are all created in God’s image and therefore must take actions immediately to reduce our moral culpability on the effects of climate change.”

Jewish-sponsored youth village in Rwanda hosts first utility-scale solar power field

The first utility-scale solar power field in East Africa, built on land belonging to a Jewish-sponsored youth village in Rwanda, was launched.

The nearly $24 million project was financed and constructed by Gigawatt Global.

Yosef Abramowitz, Gigawatt president, also is CEO of Energiya Global Capital, Gigawatt’s Israeli affiliate, which provided seed money and strategic assistance for the project.

The Rwanda field — constructed in the shape of the African continent — was built on land belonging to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. The village for orphans from the 1994 Rwandan genocide and after was founded by the late Anne Heyman, who died a year ago in a horse-riding accident.

The village is leasing land to house the solar facility, the fees from which will help pay for a portion of the village’s charitable expenses. Gigawatt Global also will be providing training on solar power to students of the Liquidnet High School on the grounds of the Youth Village.

The solar field will feed electricity into the national grid under a 25-year power purchase agreement with the Rwanda Energy, Water and Sanitation Authority.

“Our project proves the viability of financing and building large-scale solar fields in sub-Saharan Africa, and we hope that this solar field serves as a catalyst for many more sustainable energy projects in the region,” Chaim Motzen, Gigawatt Global co-founder and managing director, said in a statement.

Six weeks after Better Place bust, some Israelis still bullish on electric cars

It was perhaps the biggest startup failure in Israel’s history.

Five years of bombastic hype. $850 million of funding burned. Networks planned in at least seven countries. A founder who spoke of changing the world.

When the electric car company Better Place declared bankruptcy in May, it marked an unhappy, though perhaps unsurprising setback for those who dreamed of Israel revolutionizing the global auto industry and freeing drivers from the tyranny of volatile oil prices.

After so public a downfall, it was reasonable to wonder if and when Israel’s electric car industry would rise again.

The answer: six weeks later.

Two initiatives are now trying to salvage the remains of Better Place and keep battery-powered rubber on Israel’s roads.

Last week, the solar energy entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, in partnership with the Association for the Advancement of Electric Transport in Israel, won a bid to buy Better Place’s Israeli infrastructure and intellectual property for about $11 million. Abramowitz will be the new president of Better Place and Efi Shahak, AAETI’s chairman, will serve as board chairman.

Meanwhile, Electric Vehicle Environments — known by the acronym EVEN — plans to import electric cars and motorcycles to Israel that will be able to use the 2,000 Better Place charging posts already installed around the country. Rather than the single model offered by Better Place, EVEN will offer seven cars ranging from the luxury American vehicles made by Tesla to the Indian compact Mahindra Reva.

“The issues that exist in the States don’t exist here,” said Marc Harel, who manages EVEN in Israel. “Vehicles aren’t going more than 125 miles. The one place you might go, Eilat, we can put a charging station in the middle.”

With its innovative solutions to problems that had long confronted electric car makers, Better Place, led by its exuberant and self-promoting CEO Shai Agassi, had raised hopes that a viable alternative to fossil fuel-powered transportation was within reach. But despite its high-profile flop, entrepreneurs continue to put money behind their faith that a small country like Israel is an ideal market for electric cars.

Abramowitz hopes to transform Better Place from a large car retailer to a slim infrastructure operation managing the charging posts and the company’s battery swap stations, where drivers can exchange a spent battery for a fresh one in about the time it takes to fill a gas tank.

The company will be run more like a startup, with 50 employees instead of the 300 it had before the bankruptcy. The slimmed-down operation will operate 15 swap stations, down from 30, and have a budget of just $12 million per year.

Better Place “tried to conquer the whole world,” Abramowitz said. “We’re not doing it that way. We’ll serve the Israeli market and grow it organically.”

Both companies have a long way to go, and a lot of skepticism to overcome, to prove that electric cars have a bright future in Israel. Among those obstacles are government regulations that could mean the difference between success and failure for both ventures.

Harel hopes to begin importing Teslas at the end of this year, and to start selling Mahindra Revas in Israel a few months later. But in order to import the cars, he’ll have to pay a $2.5 million deposit to the government.

“In Israel it’s one obstacle after another,” Harel said. “This is an extremely challenging market to deal with. The Transit Ministry has put a lot of barriers to entry.”

Abramowitz, meanwhile, will have to prove that investing in a network that failed two months ago isn’t just throwing good money after bad. He is still trying to raise the money to buy Better Place, and said 5,000 electric cars will have to be on the road within two years for the company to break even. Better Place sold only about 1,000 cars.

Harel and Abramowitz are lobbying to extend a tax benefit, due to expire at the end of the year, that offers electric car importers a vastly lower rate than their gas-fueled competitors. Currently, importers of electric cars pay an 8 percent tax, while gas cars pay 83 percent.

Abramowitz also hopes to convince the government to adopt Better Place’s network as a national infrastructure project, a designation that would provide a range of benefits to help the industry develop, including loan guarantees and a more favorable regulatory environment. Abramowitz and Shahak also want the government to populate its car fleet with electric vehicles and give electric car drivers benefits like free parking.

The government has not agreed to these proposals, telling JTA that the relevant ministries will wait to see what happens before taking a position. But even if they do, skeptics remain unconvinced that either company has hit on the appropriate model.

Haaretz automotive columnist Yoav Kaveh, while conceding that electric cars eventually will be the norm, said the jury is still out on how best to keep the batteries charged.

“We need to see if it’s going to be battery switching, a fuel cell or a smaller battery,” he told JTA.

Harel says Mahindra Reva and Zero Motorcycles, a model that can plug into a regular home outlet, solve Kaveh’s problem. And even though another charging method might offer some benefits, the Better Place network has the advantage of already existing.

“This is a national program that could make Israel a leader in electric cars,” Shahak said. “We should take this infrastructure and keep it running. It would be a shame to throw it away.”

Israeli solar power pioneers take global step forward [UPDATE]

The president of Arava Power Company, Yosef Abramowitz, hired a Tel Aviv firm to raise $10 million to fund the development of solar fields outside Israel.

DS Apex M&A Ltd. will help this new global venture expand the development of solar fields globally, Abramowitz said Sunday.

Abramowitz is looking at countries in the developing world, particularly Africa, to expand the reach of solar power with the yet-unnamed new company.

“Eighty-five percent of Africa has no power,” said Abramowitz. “And most of the 15 percent who have electricity are burning dirty and expensive diesel. We have a moral and strategic interest to end the burning of oil for electricity production worldwide.”

David Rosenblatt, Arava’s co-founder and executive vice chairman, sent JTA a statement saying that “Abramowitz's partnership with DS Apex M&A Ltd. to raise funds for a new company for the development of solar fields outside of Israel is completely separate from his involvement in Arava Power Company.” The statement also said that Arava has no equity in or any connection to the new venture.

Arava has developed the only commercial scale grid-connected solar field in Israel, the Ketura Sun solar field, and is expected to break ground on eight additional fields shortly. 

Also Sunday, Abramowitz was named Person of the Year by the 2012 Israel Energy and Business Convention.

“If there is no profitability, horizon and clarity within six month from today, the majority of international investors in the Israeli solar industry will leave along with billions of dollars and thousands of green jobs,” Abramowitz said in accepting the award.

He also decried the fact that no approved solar projects have gone to the Bedouin.

Pro-Obama video by Sarah Silverman’s sister to begin airing in Florida

A video in support of President Obama produced by the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman will begin airing in Florida.

The video by Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, posted last week on Facebook shows Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in an interview and Israelis throughout the country praising Obama's support for Israel's security.

A 30-second version is scheduled to run in Florida television markets on Monday during the foreign policy debate between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Susan Silverman, who lives in Israel with her husband, Arava Power CEO Yosef Abramowitz, and their five children, became involved in making the video after asking her famous sister to make a video about Israelis' support for Obama.

Sarah Silverman made “The Great Schlep” video in support of Obama four years ago to convince her grandparents and other grandparents to vote for Obama. Earlier this year she made a video asking casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to switch his support to Obama.

The video comes on the heels of an Op-Ed published in the Jewish Press in which Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt criticizes Sarah Silverman for being “crude” and “vulgar.” He suggested that she channel her energy into marrying and having children. The Silvermans' father, Donald, responded with a vulgar statement of his own.

Head in the clouds and feet in the desert, Yosef Abramowitz dreams of Israeli solar power

Yosef Abramowitz is running out of time.

With only minutes to go until he has to speak to a group of donors at the Jewish National Fund, Abramowitz looks like he just finished a workout. He’s wearing sneakers, shorts and a white T-shirt featuring an outline of David Ben-Gurion’s head superimposed on the picture of a sun.

He excuses himself from the table at a Tel Aviv cafe and jogs to the bathroom to change into his “costume,” which includes slacks and a clean, ironed shirt. Immediately after the donor meeting, he flies to the United States for a few weeks to court more donors.

Abramowitz, 48, is fundraising for the Arava Power Company, which aims ultimately to provide 10 percent of Israel’s energy needs through solar power. The company now has a 4.9-megawatt field up and running in the Negev Desert, and is building a 40-megawatt field nearby.

It’s an unlikely mission for the Boston-raised Abramowitz: His background is in human rights activism and journalism, not science and technology.

“Isn’t that crazy? It’s the craziest thing,” he said. “It’s not like you wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to move to Israel and do solar.’ “

But as he tells it, that’s more or less what happened.

After success as a college student in the 1980s fighting for imprisoned Soviet Jewry activists in Russia and against apartheid in South Africa, Abramowitz served in the Israeli Defense Forces and earned a graduate degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. Abramowitz, whose activism has rankled the organized Jewish world for years, then spent the 1990s and early 2000s writing for a handful of Jewish publications. His journalism career included writing a 1996 series of articles that called into question JNF’s finances.

In 2006, looking for a quiet lifestyle, he and his wife moved with their children – they have five, including two adopted from Ethiopia—to Kibbutz Ketura, near Israel’s southern tip, where Abramowitz had volunteered following high school. The plan was to spend the year writing, but Abramowitz scrapped that almost immediately upon arriving at the kibbutz.

“We got there on Aug. 24 at end of the day, and this hot rush of air just hits you, and you go ‘Oh my God,’ and the sun is setting and it’s burning my skin,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m sure the whole place works on solar power.’ ”

It didn’t because no commercial solar power existed in Israel. Hoping to change that, Abramowitz partnered with Ed Hofland, an investor who lived on the kibbutz, and David Rosenblatt, an investor based in New Jersey, to found the Arava company.

Since then, Abramowitz laments the “100 regulatory battles” he says he’s had to fight against the Israeli government to build the 4.9-megawatt field, which began running last year, and to launch several other solar energy projects.

Officials from the Public Utilities Authority, which administers Israel’s energy infrastructure, did not respond to several calls for comment.

For Abramowitz, the process is grating. While he has launched ventures and organized campaigns before, and while he understands budgets and bills, he speaks the language of a social justice organizer, not a businessman. He calls his work “Zionist activism” and likens himself to Don Quixote “slaying dragons and tilting at windmills.”

Abramowitz’s analogy for APC’s success is the story of the Soviet Jewry movement, not the achievements of other solar companies.

“My point of view was, I can get a Prisoner of Zion out of solitary in the gulag and we can’t change the laws in our own country?” he said. “It was just clear as day that it was doable.”

To Abramowitz’s employees, his idealistic attitude is both an inspiration and, at times, a hindrance. Engineer Ram Duani calls Abramowitz the dream “of every engineer: He has the vision, he has the money and he wants to invest in something new.”

Hannah Schafer, APC’s director of communications, notes that Abramowitz’s ambitions don’t always consider the company’s logistical limitations.

“There are two opposite ends of the spectrum,” she said. “Yosef is the dreamer. Yosef likes to run off, and sometimes you have to pull him back in on a leash.”

Despite decades in the Jewish community’s public eye, and as much as he sees himself as a visionary, Abramowitz projects himself as a colorful character as well as an entrepreneur. After he left the Tel Aviv cafe to address the JNF donors, his publicist sent out two links at his request: One was to an article about Abramowitz’s near obsession with Madonna—he has traveled across continents to watch her perform.

The other was to “Scissor Sheldon,” a video that urges billionaire Sheldon Adelson to donate his money to President Obama in exchange for a sexual favor from comedian Sarah Silverman—whose sister, Susan, is Abramowitz’s wife.

While his daring personality has pushed him to dream beyond the company’s limits, it also has given him the confidence to start a solar company with no experience in the field. Schafer said that when launching APC, Abramowitz and his partners realized that all they needed to do was “look like we know what we’re talking about.”

So instead of spending years researching solar power, APC’s founders managed to install one solar panel at Ketura, which they would show investors as a model of their larger concept.

If he is a dreamer, Abramowitz is relentlessly focused on one dream. APC’s official goal is to provide a tenth of Israel’s power; Abramowitz dreams of a country run entirely on solar energy. He sees APC as one part social action, one part Zionism, one part Jewish values and one part business.

Abramowitz, for example, decided that APC would donate the profits from the solar field’s corner panels to four nonprofits, in accordance with the Jewish commandment of pe’ah, which mandates that farmers leave the corners of their fields for the poor.

He has a grandiose vision for his small company—one that is less about revenues and expenses than about values and ideals. Abramowitz sees solar energy as the key to lowering Israel’s high energy costs, cutting pollution and fulfilling David Ben-Gurion’s vision of making Israel’s desert bloom.

“I feel like we’re out of time,” he said. “That’s why I’m always on three hours’ sleep. I’m in a rush. The whole planet should be in a rush. The Jewish people should be in a rush.”

Twenty-Nine Days to Make Mitzvot

Aryeh Green and Yosef Abramowitz were sipping tea in a Bedouin tent last year in Sde Boker, a kibbutz in Israel’s Negev desert, when they had an idea.

Participants at a conference of Kol Dor, an organization that seeks to revitalize Jewish activism and unity across the globe, the two were discussing how the group could promote Jewish identity and peoplehood.

“Most Jewish institutions and endeavors are out of touch with the next generation of Jews because of a lack of relevance,” Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family and Life (JFL), which publishes several Jewish Web sites and magazines, told JTA. “But we do know that the idealism and the desire to contribute to the world” are predominant.

It occurred to them that a month in the Jewish calendar formally dedicated to social action would be an ideal means of mobilizing and inspiring the Jewish community.

Their initiative received a major boost this week when the Knesset’s Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs proclaimed the Jewish month of Cheshvan, which falls in November this year, as Social Action Month.

According to Green, who serves as an adviser to former Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, “We agreed that if we wanted Kol Dor to succeed, we would have to focus on practical, tangible contributions.”

“What makes this initiative interesting and unique is that it harnesses the power of different social action and Jewish organizations to get involved,” Green said.

The goal is not to spearhead specific projects, but to “pull together the existing frameworks of social action.”

The effort has garnered the support of various Jewish groups, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Israel Defense Forces’ education branch and the World Union of Jewish Students.

Abramowitz said Labor Party legislator Colette Avital, who chairs the Knesset’s Immigration Committee, has sent a letter to various Jewish organizations expressing support.

Jewish schools in Israel and the Diaspora will be a particular focus of the initiative. According to Abramowitz, Social Action Month will receive special attention in the BabagaNewz, a monthly magazine on Jewish values that JFL publishes for elementary school students. The magazine serves 1,400 Jewish schools and has a circulation of more than 40,000.

The JFL journal, Sh’ma, and magazine, JVibe, also intend to publish features on the subject, he said.

Abramowitz said Cheshvan was selected for the project because it immediately follows the High Holidays, which usually spur higher levels of Jewish observance.

The Knesset decision also represents a victory for Kol Dor, whose philosophy formed the ideological foundation for Social Action Month.

“The paradigm that we are advocating in Jewish life is that peoplehood is a central mobilizing force,” Abramowitz said, citing the success of the movement to rescue Soviet Jewry as one example.

The group seeks to use the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, as a unifying theme.