August 24, 2006, as the sun settles in Israel's Arava desert valley, in a small kibbutz north of Eilat, the van door opens and the 40-degree heat hits Yosef Abramowitz, who had just made Aliyah from the U.S. - surprisingly filling the man and his family with excitement.
Abramowitz a social activist and entrepreneur. He founded the anti-apartheid movement at Boston University, led campus campaigns against anti-Israel elements at universities, and for years served as president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.
Abramowitz’s first thought when arriving in the Arava was, “Wow, it is hot in here!” His second thought was how wonderful it was to come to a place, where it was obvious without a doubt, would thrive with solar energy.
On his second day there, he was shocked to learn that this was not the case. He naively asked kibbutz members where their solar panels were so cleverly hidden, and was amazed to find out that none existed.
On his third day, he wondered how in a startup giant such as Israel, the solar technology had been so badly ignored. Members of Kibbutz Ketura explained to him that until then, no one was “crazy” enough to fight the bureaucracy and get all the stakeholders on board with solar energy. "No one crazy enough, ah?" Abramowitz said to himself. He’d indeed come to the right place. Ketura’s members didn’t know who they were dealing with. Neither did the bureaucrats and lobbyists.
Abramowitz, born in 1964, is a human equivalent of a cyclone. His childhood was spent in Zionist youth movements. He has a Bachelor’s degree in public policy from Boston University, where he was a student of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. And he earned his Master’s in journalism from Columbia University.
In 1997, he successfully led a campaign to restore $7 billion to the U.S. federal budget as per the Welfare Reform Act, and helped organize demonstrations calling for human rights in 23 countries. In short, there's not have enough space to list all of Abramowitz’s achievements in the past two decades.
To name just a few: He was elected Person of the Year in 2012 by the Israel Energy and Business Conference; CNN named him an Influential Green Pioneer; the Jerusalem Post named him one of the most influential Jews of 2013; he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry. This year, he is again a Nobel nominee for his work to save human lives in arid regions.
They sought to live far from Jerusalem
The decision to immigrate to Israel began with his spouse Susan Silverman, who proposed that they take a two-year respite from the race called life. Silverman, sister of actress and comic Sarah Silverman, is also a social activist with an impressive record of work in religious pluralism and international adoption. Consistent with her activism, Yosef and Susan adopted four-year-old Zamir (now 20), whose biological parents had both died of AIDS.
Zamir joined eldest daughter Aliza (29), an actress residing in New York, Hallel (27), a graduate of Reichman University; Adar (23), whom they adopted at the age of two weeks in Addis Ababa; and Ashira (18), now attending a pre-IDF academy. When they arrived in Israel with five young children, Yosef and Susan felt that they needed a quiet place to settle and solidify as a family.
Before departing for Israel, Abramowitz was recruited to the Atid Ehad [“one future”] party, which mainly helped Ethiopian Jews to emigrate to Israel. Their first instinct was to settle in Jerusalem, but Susan insisted on being far from the political scene, so they chose Ketura, where Yosef had fond memories of a gap year there when he was 18.
“If they hadn’t offered me a place on the party list, my vision of solar energy in the Arava wouldn’t have happened, as we would’ve moved to Jerusalem,” Abramowitz recounts, smiling.
“As soon as I found out that there was no solar energy [in the Arava], I knew that this [goal] was for me: Working toward parity via the Zionist, social, and environmental struggle; strengthening the outlying communities. That same week, I found an attorney at neighboring Kibbutz Lotan, and established Arava Power Company, along with two partners. People said that an idealistic American immigrant could never do it. But I'd already accomplished a lot for other communities, so why wouldn’t I be able to do the same here?”
The Eilat-Eilot Local Council supported the idea and assisted in the beginning, along with family members, friends, and small investors, most of them American Jews. Together with his partners, founders Ed Hofland (chair of the Board of Directors from Ketura) and David Rosenblatt, who continues to fill executive positions, Abramowitz took upon himself the vision of branding Eilat and the Arava as the world’s first region to run 100% on solar energy during the daytime. “Everyone called me a naïve American kibbutznik,” says Abramowitz. “We thought it would come to fruition in two or three years. It actually took 14 years, no thanks to the state.”
What difficulties did you encounter?
“The technology existed. The problem was the lack of ethical climate leadership. The gas and petroleum companies, together with the Treasury and the Energy Ministry, are killing off solar energy. We’re at the bottom of the OECD rankings in solar energy; we’re one of the only countries that lack a climate law. Israel is a difficult country both politically and statutorily. We had to fight 100 battles to establish Arava Power. We think we’re a democracy, but in fact, the Treasury is a shadow state that decides [for or against] and prevents solar energy, and has for 15 years.
“After hooking up the first solar field ten years ago, at Ketura, we could’ve easily hooked up the entire country quickly. But the state is only interested in gas. So we said that we’d at least hook up our own region, in order to prove that it’s possible technically and economically. 24 government agencies, each staffed by bureaucrats, each working in their own narrow domain…it’s horrible. There was no legislation, no mechanism. It’s hard. Investors want certainty and a horizon.”
So how did you succeed where others failed?
“Actually, I invented forms. The Electricity Authority, for instance, did not have an application for a solar license, so we tweaked an existing application. They asked, “What is this?” I replied, “An application for a license.” They said, “No such thing.” I put the form on the clerk’s desk, and they ignored it for 14 months.
We held hearings in the Knesset Economics Committee, we approached the Interior and Environmental Protection Committees, we hired a lobbyist, Zohar Levy, we pounded on lots of doors, we met with many ministers, and we wrote columns and kept at it, as it’s a just cause. Initially, I invested money together with Ketura; I did the first round of fundraising. The minute we had a permit, the JNF was our first investor. Siemens followed, controlling 40%, and then things started rolling.”
In 2011, Arava Power’s first solar field was inaugurated at Ketura, the first in the Middle East, supplying 4.9 megawatts of power. In 2015, a second field was built, the largest field in the Middle East, supplying a third of Eilat’s daytime energy.
The site has since become something of a pilgrimage destination for dozens of businesspeople from all over the world who come to see it. On the heels of his success and the interest, it aroused, Abramowitz and his partners established a sister company, Energy Global Capital, to respond to inquiries from Africa. At the same time, then-U.S. President Obama decided to change the nature of the U.S.’s foreign aid to Africa to a more efficient model and established Power Africa. As part of the new plan, eight U.S. government agencies were committed to supporting private-sector business initiatives dedicated to public welfare.
“There are 600 million Africans without electricity. 300 million Africans are burning diesel for power and Africa’s population will double within a generation,” explains Abramowitz. “If they don’t have electricity, they won’t have education or health care. Vaccinations need refrigeration. Manufacturing needs electricity. This is an opportunity for endless mitzvot. Who’s going to invest in Rwanda after a genocide? The answer is: I will. I was asked to be among the founders of an initiative the entirety of which is engaged in energy and renewal, consequent to what I achieved here in Israel. But nothing has happened, as like here, there’s no regulation, and building infrastructure there takes a long time.”
With the same resoluteness, Abramowitz decided to erect the first solar field in Rwanda at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, founded by Anne Heyman z”l, an old friend from Abramowitz’s youth movement days.
In 2012, Abramowitz recorded Power Africa’s first success via the same solar field, which now supplies 6% of Rwanda’s electricity. “One day, I get a call from the US embassy in Kigali, and they say, ‘Be here in two days at seven a.m.’ They wouldn’t tell me why. I flew there. I go to the room, where 30 members of Congress were there, among them Joe Kennedy, a friend of mine from Boston, as well as Senator Al Franken, a former comic, whom I know well as he worked with my sister-in-law on Saturday Night Live, and then in comes…Bono, who heads a foundation called ONE that works to eliminate poverty in Africa, wanted to copy our model. I was in shock. I said to myself “Yeaaaaaaaaaaa!” We were the first to bring economic and social development [to Rwanda] that’s also climate-friendly.”
How many people have been affected thus far by your initiative in Africa?
“We have projects in process, a pipeline of 700-megawatt of solar and wind fields. In Rwanda and Burundi, 100,000 people in each country now get their electricity from our solar fields, and since we’ve come in, other initiatives have joined in energy investment that also supplies the electricity. Our most recent field was built in October 2021 in Burundi, eastern Africa, the world’s poorest country. It supplies 10% of Burundi’s electricity. Now we’re going to raise $25 million in order to build solar fields in 10 more places, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Mozambique, Liberia, Nigeria, Guinea, Burundi, and South Sudan, where our next field is being built; as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
Alongside Abramowitz’s three-pronged Africa-U.S.-Israel activity, he serves on the Board of Directors of Hayim ve’Sviva [“life and environment”] and of DemocraTV, and even ran as the “green candidate” in Israel’s most recent elections for President, endorsed by environmental protection groups and Youth for Climate, the Israeli chapter of Future Fridays. He nearly met the threshold of ten signatures of Knesset Members needed to submit his candidacy for President. “No one [else] ran based on an environmental protection vision, but in retrospect, I'm not disappointed that I didn’t meet the threshold. On the contrary: Now we’ve got Bougie Herzog in the President’s Residence, who’s a climate ally.
“When I succeeded in Rwanda and Burundi, I didn’t take the bonus to which I'm entitled, as every cent needs to go toward operations until Energiya Global Capital becomes profitable. Right now we’re in a deficit, and it means pressure every day. There’re nights when I don’t sleep; I worry about our mortgage payments. All of my activity in Israel is on a volunteer basis. But in three years, we will be profitable.”
Your humanitarian work led to your nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by a group of 12 African countries. Has this opened doors for you?
“It’s nice to be a nominee, but it’s a long way from being awarded the prize. There’s a big difference, as I learned when I was a student of Elie Wiesel. We all want recognition, and it certainly helps create trust, as it indicates that even if your goals are business-oriented, they’re first and foremost aimed at doing good, not making money. If the Nobel Committee wants to honor someone who’s working for the planet from the perspective of consciousness-raising and activism, I'd rather Greta Thunberg get the prize. If the committee wants to emphasize solutions to address the climate crisis, then I'd be pleased to also be chosen.”
Does the fact of your being Israeli and Jewish affect your work worldwide?
“As a Jew and an Israeli, being where genocide occurred [Rwanda] is very significant. Rwandan President Paul Kagame understood that he needed to take an example from a people that underwent trauma, who came out of darkness into the light, as we did. I was in Djibouti, with whom we don’t have diplomatic relations. But they know about Israel and value our knowledge. There’s a big advantage in being identified with Israel as the Startup Nation.
“In those countries, they know their Bible and can quote from it much better than many Jews. They believe in us more than we believe in ourselves, and that’s a big responsibility. We don’t have a large staff; we’re 12 Israelis and eight locals in each country. And our emphasis is social welfare: We invest via training local students in the Arava to learn about renewable energy. We seek to do good by locating our solar fields adjacent to orphanages, to help them economically. We require that suppliers be local, and thereby create jobs.”
Do you pay a personal price for your work?
“My ties to Africa are strong, so in my work, I'm saying ‘thank you‘ to Africa, as among other good things, Africa gave us two of our children. Africa is the most struggling continent on the globe, and I'm obligated to it because of that,” Abramowitz says with obvious emotion.
“There are those who think we’re wealthy because of what we did in the Arava, but everything that we have is invested in Africa. When I succeeded in Rwanda and Burundi, I didn’t take the bonus to which I'm entitled, as every cent needs to go toward operations, until Energiya Global Capital becomes profitable. Right now we’re in a deficit, and it means pressure every day. There’re nights when I don’t sleep; I worry about our mortgage payments.
"All of my activity in Israel is on a volunteer basis. For example, in the Bedouin community, where it’s a disgrace that an hour and a half drive from Israel’s center there’s such poverty, no electricity, and no running water. I'm not an entity that profits from the poorest people in Israel, but rather first and foremost, I come to help. Otherwise, what moral standing do I have?”