Sami Bollag on a recent visit to Israel. He is president of Keren Hayesod Switzerland,
among other affiliations.
March 25, 2010 / 10 Nissan 5770
Sami Bollag's family has called Switzerland home for over 200 years, but the successful businessman and philanthropist is in Israel so often, it is his home away from home.
"I have always been connected to Jewish life," Bollag told the JEWISH AGENCY on a recent visit to Israel. A resident of Zurich, he comes to Israel up to ten times a year and has a home in Neve Zedek. The founder of Esprit Switzerland and Italy, he is currently the president of a premium fashion company whose internationally known brands include Guess and Stefanel.
But his heart belongs to the Jewish people.
"For me, it is not enough to just live Jewishly. I am always involved in the community. I have to be active as a Jew," he said.
Active, indeed. Bollag has been the president of Keren Hayesod Switzerland for the past nine years, sits on the Board of Governors, has been chosen to be on the Executive of Keren Hayesod and is active in Partnership 2000 (P2K).
Recent priority projects launched by Keren Hayesod Switzerland and the Jewish Agency include an arts and culture center in Be'er Sheva that offers an array of classes, programs and performances. Another recent project is a multi-generational community center in Rehovot - the biggest community center in Israel, with 16,000 people coming through its doors each week - whose aim is to cater to the needs of everyone from birth through old age.
"Sami demonstrates the epitome of a Keren Hayesod leader," said Greg Masel, Director General of Keren Hayesod. "He is president of the campaign and he leads by example both in terms in his commitment, his willingness to involve others and his tireless energy in ensuring that the campaign in Zurich continues to shine."
"He is invaluable. We are very fortunte have him in Keren Hayesod," added Masel.
Bollag, who is 67, has three daughters and two grandchildren, with another on the way. One daughter is raising her family in Switzerland, another is studying at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and the third is studying to be an opera singer at the Manhattan School of Music.
He met his wife, Anette, in 1982 at a Young Leadership Conference in Switzerland sponsored by Keren Hayesod. Anette is the president of the Swiss Friends of Tel Aviv University.
The focus of the conference was on assimilation and Jewish identity, something that concerns Bollag to this day.
There are 18 thousand Jews in Switzerland, the largest community (5,000 strong) in Zurich. "It's a very active community," said Bollag. But like many communities outside of Israel, it suffers from a very high assimilation rate (50%).
Bollag's ancestors settled in Switzerland in the 18th century. As he explains it, before 1848, Jews were confined to certain neighborhoods until the first revision of the Swiss Constitution in 1848 when they were permitted freedom of movement. Today, there are 18 thousand Jews in Switzerland, with the largest community of 5 thousand living in Zurich. "It's a very active community," said Bollag.
As a young man, he attended yeshivot in France, Switzerland and England. Not surprisingly, as a European businessman, he is something of a polyglot, speaking German, Swiss German, French, Italian, English, and Spanish.
After his studies he took over his father's clothing business which he eventually turned into Esprit Switzerland, a business venture that brought him regularly to Hong Kong to be involved in production and design.
When it comes to the Jewish future, Bollag is concerned about the fact that priorities have changed. "Attachment to Israel is slowly evading from the Jewish people," said Bollag. "In the past, people gave to Israel because it was duty, an obligation. But the younger generation doesn’t feel this anymore. If you don't have an attachment to this place then you don't give."
That is why programs such as MASA Israel, which brings young people from around the world to Israel for long-term stays, Birthright, which gives many young Jews their first taste of Israel, and P2K, which pairs communities in Israel and the Diaspora together, are so "vital," according to Bollag.
As for the Jewish Agency's shift to focus on Jewish identity, he feels it should go hand in hand with continued support for Israel. "I am very much in support of working towards strengthening Jewish identity, but we should not forget about supporting projects in Israel and helping those in need."
And at his heart, Bollag is an optimist.
"When you are actively involved you can say, 'I have hope. I never give up,'" he said.