As he took the stage on Feb. 23, Mark Rothman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, had just one question.
“Where’s my timer?” he asked.
You have 10 minutes: That’s the first rule for speakers at BINA-LA, a monthly program for young professionals. The events are sponsored by the three-year-old Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), whose third annual sold-out gala is set to take place at the Beverly Hilton on March 20.
Bina is the Hebrew word for insight; BINA-LA is the ILC’s young division. First launched in August 2010, BINA-LA has held seven events so far, offering up a handful of presenters, most of them local. This is intentional, said Amir Give’on, the 37-year-old Israeli-born, Princeton-educated engineer who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and helped found BINA-LA. “It’s about bringing people from within the community to talk about what they do,” Give’on said. (He said he’d make an exception to the group’s “no celebrities” rule if Sarah Silverman wanted to speak at BINA-LA.)
Most BINA-LA talks relate to Israel or Judaism in some way, but the topics vary widely. At the February BINA-LA, four back-to-back presentations included Rothman’s talking about the Holocaust’s role in the founding of Israel, choreographer Barak Marshall on the politics of Israeli dance, composer David Rodwin on the Jewishness of 20th-century orchestral music and Sharon Rechter, an Israeli American entrepreneur who co-founded a television channel for babies, talking about what startup companies could learn from Israel. (And no, she hasn’t read that book.)
The BINA-LA speakers, like the coordinators, are all volunteers. Programs like this one show the vast talent pool that the ILC can draw upon.
“It’s like an Israeli TED,” said Shanee Feig, the sole paid ILC staffer working on BINA-LA. Feig, 29, was born and bred in Los Angeles to Israeli parents, and she was referring to TED, the organization that brings the smart, rich and/or famous to present “Ideas Worth Spreading.” As in TED Talks, BINA-LA’s speakers all use PowerPoint, and all of the presentations are videotaped. Many of the videos are posted on the group’s Web site, binala.org. (Sasha Strauss’ presentation at the first BINA-LA, “$100,000 of Brand Strategy Advice,” is very TED-like.)
The goal isn’t to create a forum for frontal dissemination of information, though, but rather to foster a community of smart, young Angelenos who care about Israel.
The 100 or so 20- and 30-somethings who made it to the Mark event space on Pico Boulevard for BINA-LA in February were a mix of Israeli Americans, American Jews and hybrids who fall somewhere in between those categories.
“Look around,” Give’on said after the evening’s talks were over. The BINA-LA dress code runs from tailored suits to shlumpy sweaters. Give’on favored a happy medium — Chuck Taylors and a slim sport jacket. People picked at sushi from the buffet and/or kept the bartender busy. And even during the time for socializing, a sizable chunk of the room was taken up by three of the evening’s speakers, who were busy fielding questions. “The speakers didn’t just come here and give a talk,” Give’on said. “They threw a topic on the table. People here have a lot to talk about.”
An eavesdropper at BINA-LA might have overheard the young, mostly (but not exclusively) single Jews conversing about their Facebook friends, their medical subspecialties or their opinions about the Israeli TV show “Ramzor” and its American remake, “Traffic Light.”
BINA-LA isn’t intended to be a straight-up singles scene, but there’s a lot of seeing and being seen that goes on. “If you see how many girls in the restroom are fixing their makeup,” one female attendee said, “you’ll get a lot of the reason that they’re here.”
Which isn’t to say that BINA-LA’s programmers don’t take their task seriously — they do. BINA-LA emcee Daniel Housman, a former arts journalist and screenwriter, talks with every speaker beforehand. So do Give’on and his fellow volunteer coordinators. “Before I tell you what to speak about,” Give’on tells BINA-LA presenters, “let me tell you about the feeling I want people to come out of the room with.”
Rothman, a seasoned public speaker, confessed to being a bit surprised by the intensity of the preparation. “I’ve never had performance anxiety like I had before BINA,” Rothman said afterward.
Generously funded by the ILC (Haim Saban is a major supporter), BINA-LA isn’t an expensive night out. (Tickets are $25 at the door including one drink, and cheaper in advance.) And it still flies somewhat under the radar. “It’s all friends of friends,” Give’on said. “That’s why you won’t see us on regular calendars.”
The same can’t be said for BINA-LA’s powerful parent organization. Since its founding in 2007, ILC members have supported many charitable efforts in and around Los Angeles. That’s the organization’s goal. “We don’t solicit somebody to become our member,” ILC board co-chair Eli Tene said. “We solicit people to get involved in other organizations.”
Among the nearly 100 members of ILC are individuals who sit on the boards of other Jewish community nonprofits, the former president of a Jewish community school and major supporters of AIPAC, StandWithUs and other Israel advocacy groups.
ILC also underwrites select projects of its own. Israeli Scouts (Tsofim) troops in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles and Orange County all expanded in recent years thanks to ILC support. ILC recently launched ILCare, a new volunteer-matching initiative, and is considering expanding to other American cities.
And of course, there’s BINA-LA. For Give’on, assembling “a well-connected group of intelligent Israelis and Americans” is his way of helping Israel.
“Israel has always been at war,” Give’on said, “and we know today that war can be anywhere. The war can be in the media, and BINA is really a way to help Israel, in that sense.”