Dr. William and Ruth Ross (photo from Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University)
Dr. William Hy Ross tears up talking about the motivation behind his philanthropic activities in Israel. Sitting behind a desk in his room at the medical clinic he runs, over which hangs a watercolour painting of the Mount of Olives, Ross said it is because of the grandparents he never met, both of whom died in the Holocaust. “If we had a state back then, that wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I would have grandparents.”
Ross met with the Jewish Independent last week to talk about the projects the Ross Foundation has undertaken in Israel, projects aimed at lifting up the underprivileged on the fringes of society there. He was accompanied by Sagie Shein, senior program manager of the Jewish American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Shein has acted as philanthropic advisor to Ross, and was recently made the fund manager of the Ross Family Foundation, in which role, he told the JI, he identifies projects that will achieve the foundation’s goals in Israel, whether through JDC or otherwise.
Ross and Shein met after Rabbi Shmuel Birnham, formerly of Congregation Har El, introduced Ross to Prof. Jack Habib of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem. Shein has now been working with the Ross foundation for six years.
Ross is a surgeon and a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia. In 2012, he established the Morris and Sarah Ross International Fellowship in Vitreo-Retinal Surgery, which funds the training of ophthalmologists from Israel, including, so far, 12 Israeli Jews, three Israeli Muslims and three Israeli Christians.
Also in 2012, he and his wife, Ruth, established the Ross Family Scholarship Program for Advanced Studies in the Helping Professions, which funds education for nurses and social workers serving in the underserved peripheral communities of Israel. Their contributions have gone to select students at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) and they have been recognized as founders of the university, in honour of their contributions. The Ross Foundation appears on the walls of BGU’s Marcus Campus in Be’er Sheva.
In 2016, the Ross Foundation
extended its activity to another initiative – the Project for the Advancement of Employment for Ethiopian Immigrants, which supports the education of engineers, web developers and others.
“Israel is a fantastic success story,” said Ross. “You hear about the start-up companies, etc., but there is a whole fringe society who doesn’t have any of those advantages.”
Ross spoke to the JI about the particular importance of supporting Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in Israel. “When they’re done serving in the army, they often end up in dead-end jobs,” he said. “We are providing living expenses for them in a way that is a game-changer, allowing them to get jobs as practical engineers and in other needed industries.”
Ross and Shein explained that, even when given support to pay for education, many underprivileged Israelis cannot afford to stop working and go to school full-time. The Ross Foundation’s initiatives give recipients a stipend that allows them to stop working and complete a course of education. The foundation is also supporting other communities facing challenges in the workplace, like Arabs and Charedim.
“JDC empowers all Israelis as a social innovation incubator, developing pioneering social services in conjunction with the Israeli government, local municipalities, nonprofits and other partners to lift the lives of Israel’s children at risk, elderly, unemployed, and people with disabilities,” Michael Geller, JDC’s director of media relations, told the Independent.
Operating since 1914, JDC has provided “more than $2 billion in social services and aid to date,” he said.
The JDC funds and organizes experimental programs in the hope that the government will see their success and launch similar efforts.
“We’re looking to pilot programs that can be adopted by the Israeli government,” Ross said.
“In 2020,” added Shein, “the foundation is expected to further expand its activities to additional programs based on the foundation vision.”
“Hy and Ruthie Ross really get Israel,” said David Berson, executive director of Canadian Associates of BGU for British Columbia and Alberta. “They speak the language of social impact and they lead by example. I am so impressed and moved by their understanding of the human equation for social change. Great training, proper guidance and supportive accompaniment can lead to gainful employment.
“As a social worker who trained and worked in Israel with some of her significant social challenges for two decades years, I know that Hy and Ruthie really understand the most critical needs of Israel. It is also an honour for me to be able to partner with JDC Israel, one of Israel’s most noteworthy agencies of real social mobility and empowerment for Israel’s most at-risk populations.”
Ross summed up the strong belief that drives his philanthropy in Israel simply: “I believe every Jew has an obligation to support Israel in some way.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.