Ben Schwartz, 28, was in afternoon prayer services last month when he heard about the Har Nof terror attacks that left five dead and several in critical condition.
“Shul has always been a haven for me, a safe space,” said Schwartz, who lives with his wife and young son in Baltimore. “When I heard about the attacks, I realized that space had been desecrated. I decided I had to do something to restore a piece of that security.”
That same day, Nov. 18, Schwartz created a website to start raising money for the families of the victims, many of whom had many children. Within hours, hundreds of donations started rolling in.
“People were looking for a way to give,” he said. “The website gave them a first opportunity.”
Schwartz, who has since raised more than 50 percent of his $50,000 goal, was not alone in his efforts. The Har Nof synagogue tragedy, which left four rabbis and one Druze police officer dead, raised more money than any terror attack since the Fogel family murders in March of 2011, according to Michelle Napell, the executive director of OneFamily, a nonprofit organization that has been aiding Israel’s victims of terror since 2001. (In that attack, five members of the Fogel family — a husband, his wife and three of their six young children — were killed in their beds by two Palestinian men who broke into their home in Itamar, a West Bank community.)
An estimated $5 million in donations have been collected since the Har Nof incident according to Motti Oderberg, assistant to Rabbi Mordechai Rubin, the rabbi of the synagogue where the attack took place.
“We’re seeing a giving pattern similar to the huge influx of donations that came in over the summer during the Gaza war,” said Napell. “When a tragedy strikes, people’s immediate reaction is to the give. Still, it’s important to set up a long-term giving strategy to help the families. Delivering a multi-thousand dollar check to the front door won’t be helpful 10 years down the line.”
OneFamily works with an allocations committee based in Israel to create a long-term spending plan for the families of terror victims. One specific appeal is raising money for the future weddings of the victims’ children.
According to Napell, decentralized giving immediately following a tragedy also runs a risk. “Though any tzedakah is a gift, sometimes funds are not utilized properly,” she said.
In the wake of the tragedy, many grassroots operations, particularly in the Orthodox community, raised money for the families. It included an effort by the 10th grade students of Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence that raised nearly $30,000 through their crowdfunding website.
“We teach our students it’s not just about what you learn in the books — it’s about being out there and addressing need,” said Rabbi Zev Friedman, Rambam’s principal, who just returned from a trip to Har Nof to visit the families and distribute the funds.
Still, according to Rabbi Friedman, the money was less “needed” than “symbolic.”
“These families live very simply,” said the rabbi. “The gift was less about the money and more about a show of compassion. It’s a show of support to help them in the short term.”
Another effort, publicized on the charedi news website matzav.com, used this pitch: “Their families lives will never be the same … yet their children still need to eat.” Kupat Ha’ir, a large volunteer-based charity with offices worldwide, set up a webpage calling for donations that included graphic images from the attack. “Whose heart does not tremble for the Hand of Hashem has afflicted us and Rachmana litzlan [woe to us all], four Jewish souls were snuffed out while praying,” the site reads. A Google search turns up several other similar websites.
Ira Zlotowitz, a Lakewood, N.J.-based founder and president of a private real estate mortgage brokerage business, attempted to combine the different operations into one centralized fund, the Har Nof Fund, publicized and endorsed by the Orthodox Union. He also agreed to match money raised by the Rambam high school students, and found several donors to participate in a matching campaign that has raised nearly $2.5 million so far.
Lakewood has a reputation as a large, generous Orthodox community with a sophisticated network for distributing charity to those in need.
“The charedi community is very in touch and philanthropic after a tragedy hits,” said OneFamily’s Napell, who noted that the extreme violence of the attack also heightened the response. OneFamily has raised nearly $100,000 for the families of the victims.
This past week marked the shloshim of the five victims, the traditional 30-day mourning period following a death. Fundraising efforts have risen accordingly. Agudath Israel, the largest umbrella organization for charedi Jews in the U.S., sent out a mass email last week publicizing the fundraising efforts of several high-profile charedi rabbis, including the Novominsker Rebbe, on behalf of the victims.
“The cause is compelling. The needs are overwhelming. The situation is dire. Please respond generously,” the message said.
How does one determine the needs in a case like this?
“When people see these huge numbers, they might have two fears,” Zlotowitz said. “The first: Is there too much money being raised? The second: is the money being distributed properly? When a lot of people are collecting at the same time, there can be risks.”
He argued that both questions, while understandable, are unfounded. Even the millions being collected will fall short, he said, estimating the total needs of the families at $10 million.
In the aftermath of last summer’s Gaza war, which generated a huge outpouring of donations, Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, told The Jewish Week that “just pouring in money at one moment in time” demonstrates a serious lack of foresight.
“At times of crisis, the money starts coming forth, yet the needs of those in crisis are not immediately known,” he said, pointing out that the problem is not unique to Israel; after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Americans donated millions before having a clear sense of where needs would emerge.
According to Zlotowitz, all the money collected through the matching campaign has gone directly to Rabbi Nissan Kaplan, a well-known rabbi in Har Nof, and Rabbi Rubin. Together, the two rabbis have allocated money to the five families, including the family of the Druze police officer, according to individual need. Keren Yehoshua V’Yisroel, the recognized 501 (c)(3) charity run by Rabbi Kaplan, is in charge of collecting funds and ensuring that donations are tax deductible, according to Zlotowitz.
Oderberg, Rabbi Rubin’s assistant, said that Tomchei Shabbos Har Nof, a charity that gives food to poor families, is where all the money is being collected. (Zlotowitz said there is no contradiction; Tomchei Shabbos is under the auspices of Rabbi Rubin, while Keren Yehoshua V’Yisroel is under the auspices of Rabbi Kaplan.)
“At the end of the day, all of the money is going to the same place,” said Zlotowitz. “It’s just getting there in different ways.”
Speaking from Israel, Oderberg, who is closely connected to distributing funds, said, “we’re still in the early stages of distributing the money.”
“Much of the money hasn’t arrived yet because drives are still in the middle. There’s no way to know how much more will come in. Still, no amount of money is enough.”