Charities Under Scrutiny: Buddy, Can You Spare Some Socks?

Charities Under Scrutiny: Buddy, Can You Spare Some Socks?

Informal charity to soldiers poses ethical problems and facilitates scams.

Associate Editor

Yoni, while serving in Gaza, was assigned to the unit preparing soldiers for burial. The Israel Defense Forces didn’t issue bulletproof vests to that unit but Yoni wanted one, even if he had to buy one. He asked friends in the Baltimore yeshiva community to help him with the cost, $1,534, and they did. Oh, and there were 79 others in Yoni’s unit who wanted one, too. Within days, Jews from Baltimore raised $122,720 for 80 bulletproof vests.

In New Jersey, Rabbi Tomer Ronen put out the word that he would be flying to Israel, bringing “care packages” — socks, underwear, T-shirts — to his son’s IDF unit in Gaza, if anyone would like to contribute. In 24 hours he collected $10,000, filling six duffel bags with nearly 600 pounds of Fruit of the Loom and Hanes.

Reflecting how informal and independent these wartime charities have become, B’nai Akiva’s Camp Moshava raised $5,000; decided the shopping list as if they were parents on visiting day, based on conversations with relatives in the IDF; and the head counselor, flying to Israel to watch her son get inducted into the IDF, delivered the shipment herself. Moshava explained in their fundraising letter, “Tzahal [the IDF] is doing the very best to provide the essential equipment. … However, there are some basic necessities that are beyond their scope at the current time to provide.”

Throughout Israel’s month-long war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Jews all over the United States were exchanging e-mails and social media telling each other that “they heard” Israeli soldiers were without the proper boots, socks or bullet-proof vests, deprived of hats, shampoo, wipes, deodorant, underwear, razors, goggles or knee-pads. In Israel, people drove to the front with pizzas, even steak. The IDF reported receiving “tens of thousands” of packages.

Now that the fighting is tentatively over with a cease-fire apparently taking hold this week, this informal charity network is coming under some scrutiny.

Lt. Col. (res.) Avinoam Sharon, who worked in the Military Advocate-General Corps, the IDF’s legal wing, told The Jewish Week that many of these ad hoc charities are “bona fide attempts by caring people to do something helpful, some are attempts to feel good or relevant, some are thinly veiled commercial enterprises … others are simply scams.” These donations could also be illegal, unwanted or unethical.

Illegal, says Sharon, because it is against regulations for anyone in the IDF to ask for gifts of value.

Unwanted, because the IDF insisted that its soldiers lacked for nothing. After looking the other way while absorbing 50,000 reservists in a month, IDF rules are once again being enforced: soldiers are not allowed to accept or solicit donations for themselves or their unit, or through a third-party. The IDF reiterated that the only acceptable donations are those funneled through IDF affiliates such as LIBI, a fund established in 1980 by the prime minister and IDF chief of staff; Agudah LeMa’an HaChayal (Association for the Wellbeing of Soldiers); and the American-based Friends of the IDF (FIDF).

There was an ethical problem, as well, concern that one soldier with access to American money might be living like “the millionaire” on “Gilligan’s Island,” while another soldier might be living lower-class in his own platoon. When donations are helter-skelter, with outsiders deciding who gets what, says Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, national director of FIDF, “It is [a problem] because I’m not sure that the right people are always getting the right things.”

An advantage of giving to the FIDF, explains Gershon, is that more can be accomplished, and more equitably, when donations are pooled and coordinated. For example, FIDF gives $50,000 to each battalion for a week’s rest and recuperation (13,000 soldiers took advantage of this in 2013); provides for the children of fallen soldiers; purchases refrigerators, game rooms, and computer centers for army bases; and distributes 50,000 mishloach manot on Purim.

Sharon, now working on a doctorate in Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says with every draft notice a letter goes to parents “instructing them not to buy any equipment for their children. The IDF supplies everything necessary, and then some, including orthopedic inserts, toiletries, sunscreen, you name it. You’re not expected to buy your own gear.”

Besides, he adds, “IDF soldiers are prohibited from using [donated] equipment that is not military grade, tested and approved by the IDF. The IDF has very rigorous standards for those things, and as we say in the army, those standards were written in blood.”

Yet need was becoming greed. One paratroopers unit set up a web site resembling a bridal registry. On it, a soldier wrote, “the funding here in the IDF is very limited and therefore there is a lack in better equipment …” Maybe it was August in Gaza, but he complained that jackets “to keep warm in cold weather aren't provided by the army. … My team and I ask for your help in the form of monetary donations. … [a cold-weather] windbreaker will cost us around $70; quality Asolo brand boots, around $150; flashlight gun attachments, around $100 …”

In fact, that unit did not need the boots anymore than the cold-weather jackets. One father of a soldier in that unit emailed that “top quality” boots are indeed given to these soldiers for combat but the IDF allows soldiers to wear Asolo boots “for everyday use.” The Asolo boots were “a status symbol … they make for great bragging rights!”

Jealousy outranked necessity. Haaretz reported a complaint that when the Sayeret Matkal, an elite special operations force, was equipped with expensive mountain boots, “the entire IDF wants the same thing.”

Sharon is stunned by individuals who think they can decide for themselves how to best equip an army. If your son was a policeman, “Would you buy boots or bullet-proof vests, haul’em down to the local precinct and say, hey, its for your SWAT team?”

One constant in almost all the informal wartime appeals was the fear that the sophisticated IDF (and therefore Israel) was in reality overwhelmed, vulnerable, ill equipped, unable to afford both bullets and boots. And to many Jews, an infantalization of the soldiers creeped into perceptions, that our soldiers remain soulful children, perhaps a remnant of the Gilad Shalit years when his image was that of our helpless little brother. That is not how Americans see the Marines.

“You may have something there,” says Sharon, “the way people sometimes think of Israeli soldiers. Maybe we do infantalize our kids even when they’re in the army, that we have to send them all kinds of stuff and keep taking care of them. We sometimes let our emotions take over, clouding our better judgment.” After all, for the 64 soldiers that died in Gaza, who wouldn’t want to do even more, if we could?

The FIDF’s Gershon has kind words for the wartime charities. “There is something remarkable, unique to our people: ‘Kol Yisroel areivim zeh l’zeh,’” the idea that all Jews feel responsible, one for the other. “In times of trouble, every citizen becomes a philanthropist. Every family becomes a charity. Achdut (unity) is great. The soldiers need to feel that people are supporting them, and the people need to feel that they are standing behind our soldiers. But the IDF says now is the time to [know] that every necessity is in place.”

There is so much surplus, he jokes, the IDF might set up a Target — not the practice range, the department store.

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