Nides aims to make Israel’s Fulbright program the largest in the world

Sender Cohen, chief investment officer of Schusterman Interests, will replace Shira Ruderman, executive director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, as Fulbright Israel’s new chairperson.


U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, on December 2, 2021.

For more than 75 years, the Fulbright program has enabled hundreds of thousands of American students, scholars and professionals to study or conduct research in academic institutions abroad, and brought the equivalent number of top-notch academics from around the world to the United States. Now, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides is aiming to put the Jewish state at the pinnacle of this flagship cultural and educational exchange initiative by making its program the largest in the world.

“Israel already has one of the largest Fulbright programs, but we can easily double the numbers,” Nides told Jewish Insider in an exclusive interview this week. “My goal is for Israel to have the largest Fulbright program in the world.”

Founded by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas, in 1946, the Fulbright program supports some 8,000 students, scholars and professionals from more than 160 countries annually, providing them with grants to work, study or conduct research in a wide variety of academic and professional fields.

“I’ve been a big believer in the Fulbright program since I was a deputy at the State Department, because I realized how beneficial it is,” Nides said. “It’s a program where ultimately these individuals come back to contribute to their communities, and there’s been Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, top scientists and doctors who have come out of this program.”

Nides, who began his posting in Jerusalem in November 2021, continued: “When I got here, I just said to myself, ‘Why don’t we have the biggest program in the world in Israel?’ The bilateral relations are already so strong; this will make them stronger.”

Working together with the Fulbright teams in Israel and in the U.S., Nides said they have already secured the necessary funds (U.S. covers 60% of funding, Israel 40%) that will enable the current number of participants to double from 60 (30 Israelis to the U.S. and 30 Americans to Israel) to 120.

In addition, the U.S. envoy revealed to JI that Sender Cohen, chief investment officer of Schusterman Interests LLC, will take over from Shira Ruderman, the executive director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, as Fulbright Israel’s new chairperson.

Cohen told JI that he was “very excited to dig in.”

“I’ll do anything to help strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel,” he said. “I love the new expansion plans; there are a lot of really creative ideas, both bilaterally between the U.S. and Israel, as well as in the region.”

Cohen also said he believes Nides’ goal to make Israel’s program the largest was a realistic one.

“I mean, most other Fulbright-affiliated countries are not the export engines of brain power that Israel is,” he observed. “If Israel can be the second-largest exporter of brain power in the world, then having one of the largest Fulbright programs in the world seems to just complement each other.”

Anat Lapidot-Firilla, executive director of Fulbright Israel, said that plans were already underway to increase the number of participants and that there was no shortage of qualified applicants in Israel.

“We have the capacity in terms of talented people and with the new funds, we can send new people, which will contribute more and make more to making an impact on Israeli society and also by exchanging knowledge with the U.S.”

Lapidot-Firilla, who has served as executive director for the past eight years, told JI that the Israeli program, which started in 1956 and has grown from 20 to 30 participants, was also expanding and diversifying the fields of study, as well the types of programs available.

“The more Israeli scholars coming to the United States and who are being exposed to American universities in the subjects that they’re interested in and then returning to Israel only strengthens the bilateral relations [between Israel and the U.S.],” Nides said. “And, quite frankly, the more Americans there are who come to Israel and learn in Israel and then go back to the U.S., it only makes them stronger advocates for Israel in America.”

“This is not just a people-to-people exchange,” he concluded. “It’s an intellect-to-intellect exchange.”  

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