Donations to North America’s Jewish federation system may be on the decline, but a group of influential Israelis living in the city of Ramat HaSharon are betting that a federation-style foundation will encourage more Israelis to give.
Takdim – The Ramat HaSharon Community Foundation, Israel’s first “Jewish federation,” launched a month ago. Lay leaders include Miri Eisen, former spokesperson for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Rami Shalmor, partner at advertising firm Young & Rubicam Israel; and Herzl Bodinger, a former commander in chief of the Israel Air Force. David Ivry, president of Boeing Israel and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, will serve as chairman.
In the weeks leading up to its official launch, Takdim had already raised more than $300,000 and brought 50 lay leaders on board.
“Takdim means precedent,” explains Arik Rosenblum, Takdim’s managing director. “This initiative is new to Israel. We want to create a local lay leadership that understands the need to give.”
Takdim will act like a local Jewish federation in pooling money from local residents and businesses to fund projects in the community and throughout Israel. While the mayor of Ramat HaSharon, Yitzhak Rochberger, will serve as honorary president, the lay leadership — and not the municipality — will choose which programs to fund.
Ramat HaSharon, a prosperous Israeli city located north of Tel Aviv, was founded nearly a century ago as a self-sufficient agricultural community. “There were only two cities in Israel at the beginning of the state who refused to accept donations to establish their entity because they wanted it to be an independent effort; one is Tel Aviv, the other is Ramat HaSharon,” Rosenblum says. “It’s in the DNA of the community to stand on its own.”
Takdim hopes to devote up to 30 percent of its resources to international efforts, as well.
“There’s no more of this ‘rich uncle-poor nephew’ relationship between America and Israel,” he says. The foundation plans to partner with a Jewish community internationally. “If that community supports Jews in the former Soviet Union, we would consider being a part of that,” he says. “For projects that are needed in the States and here — such as Jewish identity — we look at ourselves as equal partners and will carry our share of the costs.”
Changing the mindset of Israelis when it comes to charitable giving is “not easy,” admits Shalmor, the advertising executive. Israel began as a socialist state, and remnants of that worldview still exist. Israelis tend to expect a lot from the government, partly due to a sense that they earned it by serving in the army. “We give three years to the army; we expect the country to be there for us,” Rosenblum says. Also, in Israel, the tax deduction for charitable giving is not nearly as comprehensive as it is in the United States, and is therefore not a key consideration when it comes to deciding how much to give to charity.
Talia Gorodess, an analyst with the Reut Institute, believes that Takdim is a “manifestation of a changing paradigm between Israel and the Jewish world.”
“It has the potential to change conceptually and practically the way Jews in Israel and elsewhere relate to one another … and the potential to move us closer to the idea of Jewish peoplehood,” she says. “We’re seeing a greater call toward neutrality and partnership” between Israel and the diaspora.
On the domestic level, local federations like Takdim could help ensure that Israel is better prepared to respond to natural disasters or security threats. “Imagine if there were a Takdim in 30 cities in Israel — think of the potential to communicate with each other and make sure that local communities are better organized and prepared to deal with emergencies.”
This trend of community building and local giving is “the positive side to the distrust and cynicism and lack of faith with government’s ability to do things,” she says. “People are saying, ‘If [the government] won’t, we will.’”
Still, it won’t be easy to encourage Israelis to give, both of their time and their money.
“Israelis are very challenged when it comes to giving,” admits Eisen, whose husband’s great-grandfather was the first mayor of Ramat HaSharon. “We’re very inspired by how in the United States, you can give $18 or $180 and that makes a difference. It isn’t only about the people who can give $180,000. That’s something that we need to build here. It’s not just about giving money per se, but being a volunteer, giving your time and your ideas.”
Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs have led the way when it comes to giving locally, says Aliza Mazor, program director at Bikkurim, an “incubator for new Jewish ideas” in New York. “They built branches in the U.S. and Europe, where you have to be charitable — you couldn’t set up shop in Silicon Valley and not join in a philanthropic initiative.”
In 2002, venture capitalist Yadin Kaufman launched Tmura – the Israeli Public Service Venture Fund, which encourages early-stage high-tech companies to donate a percentage of company shares to the fund. Should the company go public, those shares are transformed into cash that is used to fund education and youth projects in Israel. In the nine years Tmura has been in existence, 32 companies have gone public, raising $3.5 million for charity. “It’s a total win-win,” says Baruch Lipner, Tmura’s executive director.
In 1998, Shari Arison of the Carnival Cruise Line fame founded Matan, the Israeli equivalent of the United Way.
“Israeli society wasn’t ready for this a decade ago,” says Mazor, who lived in Israel for 15 years, where she worked in the nonprofit sector. “It’s come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.”
In 2003, the Jewish Funders Network established JFN-Israel, which currently has 70 family members who give a minimum of $25,000 to charity each year. “There are philanthropists in Israel, but no philanthropy,” says Maya Natan, director of JFN-Israel. She estimates that there are 10,000 millionaires in Israel, but only 1,000 give to charity. “People here give, some give a lot, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Encouraging Israelis to give is becoming increasingly important, as support from Jewish donors abroad is on the decline. In May, Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Philanthropy reported that the percent of money donated to Israeli charities from the diaspora had declined from 68 percent in 2008 to 62 percent in 2009. “The numbers are going down … there are financial issues, issues with Madoff, and fewer people are finding a way to connect with Israel,” Rosenblum says, referring to Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme hurt many American Jewish philanthropists. “If we don’t step up to the plate and begin to take responsibility for the needs of our own country, then we have a problem.”