Founder and President

Peter Geffen is also Founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC, former Director of the Israel Experience Program for the CRB Foundation and one of the most respected Israel education specialists in the world. He has been a social activist since serving as a civil rights worker for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965-66 and has been deeply involved in Arab-Jewish co-existence work since the early 1960's. Peter served as Executive Director of The Center for Jewish History from 2003-05.  He has designed and conducted international travel programs for teenagers and adults since 1969 including the Kivunim summer teachers' programs that have served over 1500 participants since 1999. Peter was the recipient of the Covenant Award in 2012, the highest recognition given to a Jewish educator.

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Executive Director

Elie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic. Following graduation, Elie worked for the New Israel Fund in San Francisco as the Development Associate for the West Coast. Elie also served as the Assistant Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee. There, she managed the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, advocating for religious freedom as a means of strengthening Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Most recently, Elie worked as  the Director of Operations and then as Interim Executive Director at The Kitchen, a religious start-up based in San Francisco. She was a participant on Kivunim in 2008-2009. Elie lives in Brooklyn with her husband David. 

Gap-Year Director

KIVUNIM's Gap-year Program Director is Jay Leberman who served as Head of School of the Perelman Jewish Day School in Philadelphia from 1997 until 2013. Prior to that he was Head of School of the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, Illinois from 1985-1997. In Chicago and Philadelphia he received national recognition for his respect for diversity and his openness to new ideas and perspectives within the educational realm. Jay began his academic training at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and received his Masters from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford.

Associate Director

Lea is KIVUNIM's Associate Director for Administration and Logistics and has been with us since we opened in 2006. Originally from New York City, Lea made aliyah to Israel in 2005. She holds a BA from Yeshiva University and a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College of Education While in New York, she taught at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. She served as co-Director of KIVUNIM from 2008-10. She is married to Rabbi Hayim Leiter and the mother of Maytal, Rafi and Netta.

AMAL ABUSIF, Language Coordinator

One of KIVUNIM’s innovations is the inclusion of Arabic Language instruction in addition to Hebrew. Arabic Instructor, Amal Abusif is an award-winning teacher in the Haifa School System and co-existence activist. She is (to the best of our knowledge) the first Arab, Muslim, Woman ever to hold a senior staff position in a program of Jewish education. She holds a BA and MA in education from Haifa University and is currently a Phd student at Ben Gurion University. Amal also coordinates our coexistence education program. 



Dr. David Mendelsohn teaches the unit on Greece prior to our first trip of each year. His areas of expertise include Islamic Studies, History and Culture of Arabs with Israeli Citizenship, Bedouin Law and the relationship between language and culture in Arabic and Hebrew. His current research examines the influence of Hebrew on the dialects of Arabic spoken in Israel. Mendelsohn also lectures on the history and relationships between Middle East countries and militant organizations. David holds advanced degrees in diverse fields: a Ph.D. Classics / Linguistics, an M.A. in Archaeology / Linguistics and an Honours B.A. in Classical Studies. David is the recipient of one of Canada’s highest academic honors, The $200,000 Trudeau Prize.


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Dr. Ari Varon teaches in our Land, People, Ideas: Jewish Homelands in Exile Course, which he helped to design. He served as the Deputy Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel from April 2005 through April 2009. His responsibilities included assisting in the preparation of the Prime Minister in all matters relating to Israeli foreign policy. Ari’s Ph.D. in Political Science was co- advised from two institutions: the University of Sciences Po located in Paris, France as well as at Tel Aviv University in Israel. His dissertation focused on the formation of an Islamic political identity in contemporary Europe. Before working at the Prime Minister's office Ari received his Masters degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington DC with a dual concentration in strategic studies and international law and a specialization in quantitative international economics. In conjunction with his studies in Washington he worked part time at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He obtained his Bachelors degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley.


Dr. Ross Brann flies in each year for an intensive week of inspired teaching in preparation for our travels to Spain. He is Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies at Cornell University. Ross studied at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, New York University, and the American University in Cairo. He has taught at Cornell since 1986 and served fourteen years as Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, completing his fourth term in 2006. Professor Brann is the author of The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), recipient of the 1992 National Jewish Book Award in Sefardic Studies, and author of Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Muslims and Jews in Islamic Spain (Princeton University Press, 2002). Brann is also the editor of four volumes and author of essays on the intersection of medieval Jewish and Islamic cultures. He is currently working on Andalusi Moorings: Al-Andalus and Sefarad as Tropes of Muslim and Jewish Culture for the University of Pennsylvania Press.


Dr. Alon Liel prepares our students for our vital experience in Turkey. He holds B.A., M.A. and PhD degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Dependence of Imported Energy and its Impact on Turkey's Foreign Policy” in 1986. Alon served the Israeli Foreign Ministry in various positions: as head of the Israeli mission in Turkey (1981-1983), the Foreign Ministry spokesman and the member of the Israeli negotiating team at the Taba talks with Egypt (1985–1987), Ambassador to South Africa in (1992-1994), Director General of the Ministry of Economy and Planning (1994-1996), Foreign Policy Advisor to Ehud Barak (1997-1999), Director General of the Foreign Ministry (2000-2001). He is the author of several books including Turkey in the Middle East – Oil, Islam and Politics (1993), Black Justice – The South African Upheaval (1999), Turkey – The Military, Islam and Politics (1999), Turkey in the Middle East (2001), Demo Islam, Turkey’s New Regime (2003). He has taught courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University on Turkey and the Middle East politics.



Karen Gerson Sarhon founded the first Sephardic music group of Turkey. "Together with my friends Izzet Bana, Yavuz Hubes and Selim Hubes I founded the first Sephardic music group of Turkey, Los Pasharos Sefaradis in 1978. My aim is to do research on Judeo-Spanish folk songs and with new compositions revive the Turkish-Sephardic culture. Through the songs we have collected over the last 35 years, the number of pieces we have today in our archive exceeds 400. Many of those people from whom we learned these songs are no longer with us. We take great care that we sing these songs we learned from our grandmothers in exactly the same way as they sang them. We have given over 300 concerts with the Los Pasharos Sefaradis group both in Turkey and abroad. We have produced 6 albums consisting of Judeo-Spanish folk songs. Since 2001 we have become aware of the shortage of publications of religious music performed in synagogues and we have also worked on this subject." She has written numerous articles on Ladino music and culture, contributed to several books and brings to KIVUNIM her unique combination of intellectual accomplishment and artistic skill. She is a graduate of Robert College, Istanbul Bogaziçi University, Istanbul, Department of English Language and Literature and holds an MA in Social Psychology from Bogaziçi University, Istanbul and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Reading University, UK.


Tobi Kahn is KIVUNIM’s artist-in-residence. Tobi, a distinguished American artist, is our “Director of Seeing,” making it possible for our students to explore and appreciate a visual way of knowing: through museums, architecture, street scenes, encounters with people around the globe, and, of course, nature. By means of his commitment to the visual arts, Tobi creates a deeper and more expansive experience for participants in KIVUNIM, both students and staff/faculty.

On May 17, 2007, Tobi became only the second artist (after Jacques Lipschitz, in 1965), to be awarded an honorary degree (Doctor of Hebrew Letters, honoris causa) by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Tobi is the curator (with student assistants) of the annual KIVUNIM exhibition. Our exhibitions have been featured at Beit Hatefusoth, the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv; at the JCC in Manhattan in New York City and most recently at the ICC of Jerusalem. These collections of the photographs and writings of KIVUNIM students are unique expressions of the sense of world consciousness developed by our students during their journeys throughout the year. In January, 2010 we published a 90-page catalogue. KIVUNIM is very privileged to be able to illuminate our students’ learning with Tobi’s insight, talent and wisdom.