With Israel considering increasing taxes and cutting social service programs to fund its ballooning defense budget, the Jewish federation system in the United States and Canada has launched a multimillion-dollar Israel Emergency Fund.
"Israel is in a crisis and it’s incumbent on American Jews to do whatever they can to help," said James Tisch, chairman of the United Jewish Communities, which represents 189 Jewish federations in North America.
Noting that a breakfast for 125 major contributors in Manhattan last Friday raised $15 million, Tisch said: "If this response is any indication, American Jews are willing to participate."
Another event at UJA-Federation headquarters in Manhattan Monday evening raised more than $1 million from about 200 guests.
A spokeswoman for UJA-Federation of New York, Marcia Neeley, said that to launch a $100,000 advertising blitz here, the organization next week would be mailing 250,000 pieces of direct mail, placing ads in daily and Jewish newspapers, and running 30-second radio spots for 10 days beginning April 26.
In addition, she said, synagogues throughout Long Island and Westchester would hold special fund-raising briefings to update the community on the crisis.
The new effort is distinct from the federations’ annual campaign and marks the first time since the Ethiopian airlift 10 years ago that a so-called "second-line" campaign has been launched.
John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation, said New Yorkers would be asked to contribute the same amount to the Israel Emergency Fund that they contribute annually to the general campaign. He said they would be able to pay off the emergency donation over three years and that UJA-Federation was prepared to dip into its reserves to borrow against those pledges to provide Israel with immediate cash.
Stephen Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of UJC, said the federations are being asked to "get us the cash as fast as possible, borrowing it if necessary."
Israel’s minister of finance, Silvan Shalom, reportedly has warned that Israelis might see a tax hike and spending cuts to help finance its war against Palestinian terrorism. Shalom is to present his proposals to the cabinet in two weeks.
And the director-general of the finance ministry, Ohad Marani, was quoted Sunday as telling a conference of venture capitalists: "The combination of a severe security crisis plus a complicated economic situation has the potential to lead to economic crisis and financial collapse."
The Israeli economy sank into a recession at the end of 2000, and as tax revenues have fallen, the defense budget has swollen as Israel has sought to combat 19 months of Palestinian terror attacks. The Israeli media has reported that Israel is expected to try to shave $2.5 billion from its budget.
Asked if he believed the Jewish community would respond as it did to Monday’s Washington rally, which attracted well over 100,000, Hoffman said: "People gave their all [for the rally], but a financial commitment is a different issue. I’m sure people made a great sacrifice by taking the day off and paying for a bus, but they may not have the ability to double their gift."
Last year the federations raised $850 million, about $250 million of which was allocated overseas, primarily to Israel.
Hoffman added that the UJC has not set a date by which the federations would be asked to send the money raised for the Israel Emergency Fund.
Ruskay said UJA-Federation would be working with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other agencies to help Israel’s most vulnerable: the elderly; new immigrants, especially Argentine Jews; and children at risk.
"We want to reduce the impact of the economic dislocation caused by the present crisis," he said.
Tisch said that in two weeks the UJC would complete a study to determine how best to use the funds raised. In addition to helping the most vulnerable, he said he expected some of the money to be used for crisis counseling and trauma care.
"The Israeli economy is in a shambles and they have to allocate more money for defense," said Tisch. "We could not replace all of the money [reallocated for defense], but we want to help out."
Hoffman said money also is expected to be spent on providing security at preschools and kindergartens. He said the government informed parents two weeks ago that it could no longer assure security and asked them to fill in.
"Parents are being pressed into service, but that is a short-term answer and it might be possible for us to step in and provide the funds [to hire private security guards]," he said. "It would require a lot of money and we would be prepared to do it for a long time while the Israeli government assesses its strategy."
Hoffman stressed that although federations in the past have individually funded particular programs in Israel, the Israel Emergency Fund "wants a unified, not a catch-as-catch-can approach."
"It was different when last year we began the Israel Now campaign because the Israeli economy then was relatively strong and our campaign was seen as a solidarity exercise to let Israelis know they were not alone in fighting terror," he said. "Now there is much more unemployment and there is pressure on Israel’s finances. So we have to have a unified approach to help the nation and not just scatter [the money] around according to idiosyncratic tendencies."
As if to underscore the community’s willingness to reach into its pockets for Israel, a group of Yeshiva University students passed the bucket at Monday’s solidarity rally at the Capitol and raised $30,000. The money will go the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund, a group formed more than a year ago to raise money for the Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism.