While Israeli Yaron Lief was backpacking in Guatemala, a hurricane hit. He did what anyone would do: he got up on a bar and rallied 2,000 tourists to organize a year-long relief effort. Seven years later, Lief is bringing his particular blend of enthusiasm, commitment and humility to San Diego.
By Debra Kamin
Yaron Lief is a beanpole with a bleeding heart. He’s delivered medicine to mothers in Ethiopia, created clean sewage systems in Guatemala and provided the Passover meal for thousands of hungry families in Israel. The only thing it seems he can’t do is take credit for his work.
Lief is 6-foot-2, with frenetic hands and an easy smile. A year ago he founded San Diego World Response, a grassroots organization responsible for, most recently, delivery of 112 cases of supplies to tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka. Lief, 30, also serves as director of the youth group San Diego Young Judaea and runs his own flood damage restoration business – Orange Restoration. In the time he has left over from saving disaster-ridden parts of the world, mentoring local Jewish kids and overseeing a team of technicians, Lief connects local Israelis through an Internet group and dabbles on various committees for the Jewish Federation.
And you thought you were busy.
The Haifa-born redhead is casual, polite, and seriously modest. “Nothing is me, Yaron, honestly,” he swears while discussing his commitments. He credits his assistant with running his company, the Young Judaea board members with managing the youth group and a team of volunteers with creating strategy for SDWR. “Honestly, it’s a big team of people that is working around the clock,” he says. “I’m Israeli – we take credit for whatever we can! But it’s true, it’s not about me.”
Credit aside, Lief is not the kind of person to sit idly by while people need help. Traveling in Central America in 1998 after his mandatory three-year stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, Lief found himself in the midst of a Guatemalan rainstorm. “We thought that [the rain] was normal because we’d never been there,” he says, “but the people reacted strangely; the public did not react as if it’s a normal thing.”
The thing was, in fact, Hurricane Mitch. And so Lief did what any traveler would do – he stood on the bar at a local tourist watering hole and rallied his fellow foreigners to create a rescue mission.
“It struck me, it was like… you know when somebody suddenly screams, ‘Somebody, do something!’ So no one screamed, but I did the step and went forward and just did it,” he recalls. Word spread, and more than 2,000 tourists joined this Israeli backpacker’s impromptu relief effort. Lief explains, humbly, “Everybody went back to their hotels and told all their friends. That’s how we got so many people.”
“Yaron could light up a city with his energy,” says Bella Dosovitsky, the 20-year-old University of California San Diego student who acts as Lief’s right-hand girl. Lief’s ability to visualize his success, she says, is key. “Most people think small. And the only thing that a person… needs to succeed is to see himself over there already. He can do that.”
Lief set up headquarters in the beat-up camper he’d been traveling in. Among his volunteers Lief found medics to help the sick and bankers to recruit funds. “What happens is you have a profession, and then you go traveling and you’re a tourist,” he explains. “But you still have your skills and your profession.”
After he – ahem, his staff – contacted Germany, Israel, the International Red Cross and other major donors of relief materials, the tourists got to work handing them out. “Technically we took over the airport because we had so many volunteers,” he says. “Airplanes are landing and we are taking it out and dividing it, and then helicopters are coming that we coordinated.” By the time the Red Cross showed up in Antigua, Lief’s impromptu organization – called Proyecto Mitch de Guatemala – had already set up the entire relief operation for the city of Antigua and the surrounding area.
The group rebuilt homes washed away by the flooding, created proper burial systems for sewage and administered medical supplies in refugee camps to prevent the spread of disease. Lief, who spent his teen years as an Israeli Scouts leader, had no medical experience. “All I knew was to take two ropes and to do special knots,” he says. “And here suddenly it’s helicopters! I had to learn.”
After a year in Guatemala – “a long time to stop in a village,” says Lief – he packed his belongings (and a new Belgian girlfriend) into the camper and headed south. PMG continued in the area, later changing its name to Proyecto Mosaic de Guatemala and assisting local women with health and employment issues.
When I ask him what he thinks would have happened if his band of tourists hadn’t been there to help out, he smiles. “I just know that we fed a lot of people,” he says.
Lief wasn’t the only one traveling south, though. With the rains over, all the tourists who had been marooned in Antigua were moving down the continent as well. News spread of the gregarious Israeli redhead who had saved a city, and he found he was recognized everywhere.
Hotel managers would wait for his arrival with rooms set aside. Restaurateurs would offer the best table in the house. Lief was not pleased.
“I just like my life,” he says with a shrug. “I like to own my life. To sit in a [coffee shop] and just be able to scream and no one will say, uh, excuse me…”
Lief escaped his newfound notoriety by selling his camper and flying to Bolivia, far ahead of the travelers moving south by car or on foot. When his relationship ended and he realized he was so integrated into local culture that there was nothing left to learn, he returned to Israel and got to work. It was 1999, and Lief was 24.
It wasn’t just Central Americans who were talking about Lief, though. Thanks to a story in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot and a healthy dose of gossip on the Jewish grapevine, word of Lief’s do-gooding had reached the Holy Land. LaTet, an Israeli non-profit whose name means “to provide,” recruited him to work for them.
In December 2000, a drought struck Ethiopia. The hardest-hit area was near the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries that had long been in conflict. Not long after Lief arrived, he found LaTet’s job included avoiding shelling and gunfire.
“I mean, you do what you need to do,” he says, completely earnest. “When I need I take bodyguards, we had a lot of bodyguards for convoys.” Then he changes the subject.
Almost immediately after he returned to Israel, an earthquake hit El Salvador. Lief and his team of 10 were again off to save the day. Soon after they arrived, they were woken up in the middle of the night by a second quake.
In the middle of organizing relief efforts in El Salvador, Lief learned there had been another quake – this time, in India. Lief couldn’t leave his mission, so he coordinated an Israeli relief effort for the Indian people while working from his office in El Salvador. With so many things coming at him at once, Lief had to improvise. But he was used to working without a plan.
“The game is to convince everybody that you know how to do it the best, and in the same time to gain the experience to do it the best, and the end result is that you are doing it the best,” he says.
This improvisational leadership style is his trademark. He thinks fast, he talks fast, he acts fast.
“He has a very Israeli sort of approach to things,” says Yael Tzalka, who works as an intern for San Diego Young Judaea. “When he wants something to get done, he does it. When he wants something to happen he’ll make the calls, he’ll go.”
But it was while delivering 50,000 seder meals to the poor in the northern Negev in 2001 that his skills as a future entrepreneur came to light.
Lief got local radio stations to donate air time, sold the radio spots to donors looking for tax write-offs and bought food at half-price with the cash. “That’s how we were able to feed so many people, so it was technically just business, like playing with numbers,” he says.
He knew more than where to find the funds, though. He knew how to make the effects of his donations last long after the afikomen was eaten. By enlisting the local police and government officials to hand out the food, Lief created goodwill between a dysfunctional government and an impoverished populace. It’s a tactic that Lief has always used: come with foreign expertise and aid, but hire local staff to distribute the aid. That way, when Lief, LaTet or San Diego World Response leaves, the locals have the know-how and credibility to continue charitable efforts.
In 2002, Lief was 27. He had traveled the globe, he had seen war. He had fought flooding, disease and hunger. He had given countless television and newspaper interviews, and he was ready for something new.
“I started to realize I’m a capitalist,” Lief says, taking a sip of his soy latte. “I saw I’m able to help so many people with running the numbers the right way, and convincing people that the only thing that will make them happy in their life is to give me all of their money.”
“He’s a businessman,” confirms Dosovitsky. “He knows that everything depends on a strategic plan, and his thoughts are always strategic.”
Having no college degree and very little business experience, Lief somehow came up with the notion to move across the globe and start a water damage repair company in a city called San Diego.
I ask him if he had everything worked out before he arrived, and he doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh yeah, completely,” he says.
San Diego seemed ideal. San Diego’s desert climate means that rains are infrequent; but when they do come, the hard desert soils are unable to absorb much of the rainfall. So even a few inches of rain can translate into widespread flooding. Someone has to be around to dry flooded houses out, and Lief saw no reason why that shouldn’t be him. His company, called “Tapuz” (Hebrew for “orange”), helped more than 30 families after this winter’s rains.
Just because he was no longer in Israel, however, doesn’t mean that he escaped the call of duty. In June of 2004, when floods ravaged communities along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border, he knew he had to do something.
Says Dosovitsky, “We landed at the JCC not knowing anyone and having a general plan that seemed entirely unrealistic to me, with a person who was willing to convince absolutely everyone that he knew 100 percent what he was doing… Only later did he admit that he might have been improvising half the time.”
Working with Dosovitsky and fellow Israeli Ron Tamari, Lief got to work on what would be SDWR’s first mission.
They made countless phone and house calls. They made good on the hospitality of the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, Hadassah and the Anti-Defamation League. They collected donations from local colleges and big-hearted Jews alike. In the end, they delivered eight and a half pallets of medicine, blankets and food to Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic.
As usual, Lief was thinking of all the angles. A team from America was sending boxes of aid to foreign refugees, and the media was bound to get involved. Why not have the mission double as an Israeli P.R. stunt, too?
Really, why not?
SDWR wrapped the pallets in Israeli flags and logos. When the cameras clicked and the public took notice, they saw blue, white and the Star of David in the same frame as international humanitarian aid.
“All of these people we are trying to use, we are making them work together,” Lief says of his style. “We want all the international organizations that read our reports to see that Israel is helping… in the pictures that say thousands and thousands of words, you can see the Israel flags, you can see the El Al airline signs.” There’s food for the hungry, blankets for the cold and Yaron Lief, the 30-year-old redheaded dynamo, scores a point for his homeland.
Things have only gotten busier. When news broke of the tsunami in Southeast Asia that killed more than 200,000 and left hundreds of thousands without homes, SDWR prepared more than 100 boxes of aid materials. Young Judaea is flourishing, with close to 200 members, and Lief’s next immediate project is turning his garage into multi-functional office where all of his endeavors can run simultaneously. In the meantime, the newly single Lief says he would love a more domestic lifestyle. “Of course I want to settle down and have a family,” he admits. Prospective girlfriends, beware: this is one persuasive redhead.