When Robert and Harriet Heilbrunn of New York saw television pictures of Albanian refugees fleeing Kosovo, their first thoughts were of how best to help them.
“At first we wanted to give money to the Red Cross,” said Harriet. “But then we thought of the American Jewish Committee, where we have a good relationship.”
Their donation had established the AJCommittee’s Interreligious Understanding Institute to promote understanding between Jews and Arabs. So they called and donated money to establish a disaster relief fund.
“They used the money as inspiration to get others to give,” said Heilbrunn. “The AJC replaced the Red Cross in our eyes because it said it would help take care of the refugees and help some Jews as well. In this case, it gave some of the money to the Macedonian Jewish community so that they could donate it to the Kosovo relief effort.”
The AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris, pointed out that although the organization has held fund-raising events in the past to help those in need — such as Indo-Chinese refugees and black churches firebombed in the South — the Heilbrunn Humanitarian Fund was the group’s first permanent emergency fund.
“They wanted to do something out of a Jewish expression of concern,” said Harris. “And we have since been approached by another family that wants to create a second fund in the same spirit — expressing Jewish concern for tragedies affecting all people, be they Jewish or non-Jewish.”
In recent years, other organizations have emerged for the specific purpose of allowing Jews to contribute to universal causes within a Jewish framework — to put a Jewish face on them, so to speak. Among them are the American Jewish World Service, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Jewish Fund for Justice and the Sholem Aleichem Club in Philadelphia, which supports groups engaged in civil liberties work as well as secular Jewish causes.
In the past, Jews could contribute to distinctly Jewish organizations or to universalistic, secular ones, such as an opera, symphony or museum. These alternative Jewish groups, an emerging middle ground of philanthropy, are another way for Jews to help humanitarian causes they are passionate about. It’s part of the change occurring in the philanthropic world, which has seen a rise in “boutique” giving — focusing in on one particular project or cause to support — and in the creation of family foundations for gift giving.
Reflecting on these groups, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that “Jews are concerned about the plight of their fellow human beings, and these organizations provide an opportunity for Jews to act as Jews and to give as Jews — of themselves and their financial resources. Rather than write a check to another relief organization or charity, they do it through a Jewish medium and a Jewish organization.”
Wertheimer noted that there has been a “multiplication of such organizations in the last 10 or 15 years, and I think more will be created. … There has certainly been a strong impulse, especially in the modern era, for the Jewish community to reach out to fellow human beings in distress.”
Some also view these groups as a portal into the Jewish community for socially minded Jews who have had little or no involvement with Jewish life. Wertheimer said there is some research “indicating that there is not necessarily a division between Jews who are concerned with Jewish issues and those who are concerned with the world at large.” The former, he said, are engaged in civic causes, as well, and one doesn’t preclude the other.
Marlene Provizer, executive director of the Jewish Fund for Justice, agreed, saying she found that a “significant” number of her group’s supporters are synagogue members who give to Jewish federations and other causes. And she observed that in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in contributions to the alternative groups, fueled in part by their greater visibility and the roaring stock market.
“I think these types of institutions are on a growth curve,” she said. “If you look at where they started, there has been dramatic growth.”
Her own organization, for instance, raised $1 million in 1996, $2 million in 1998 and $2.5 million this year. Providing the impetus for such growth was philanthropist George Soros, who three years ago offered a $1 million matching grant spread over three years.
The critical question in the future, Wertheimer said, is one of balance.
“How much time, energy and resources of the Jewish community will be devoted to these types of causes, and will this occur at the expense of Jews who are in need?” he asked.
A founder and board member of the Jewish Fund for Justice, Evan Mendelson, said her organization was launched knowing that Jews already were giving to other faith-based groups that fought poverty in low-income areas.
“They did so because as Jews they felt a need to be involved in the world,” she said. “That’s a Jewish thing, but we didn’t have a Jewish institution to do it through.”
Another board member, Lawrence S. Levine, said the “biblical message that resonates with us is to treat thy neighbor as thyself. … What we are doing is profoundly Jewish, and we are doing it because we are Jews who are aware of our ethical commitment to repair the world and make it a more just place. We see that as the essential prophetic message of Judaism. For us, what was important was to speak out not just as Americans but as Jewish Americans.”
The American Jewish World Service also was founded at a time when it was “assumed that a lot of Jews were supporting international development and emergency relief projects,” according to its executive director and president, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. But, she added, founder Larry Phillips believed such assistance should be done through a Jewish group.
“We are the only Jewish organization whose primary purpose is to work with grassroots local development efforts in the Third World,” she said. “We identify grassroots groups that know the direction in which they want to move, such as projects for agricultural reform or opening opportunities for women in business.”
In addition to providing grants for the groups, AJWS will often give technical assistance. And in the last six years, it has developed a volunteer corps, sending 30 Jews with the professional skills sought by groups in need. They have remained there from one month to a year, with only their airfare reimbursed.
“I believe there is an implicit Jewish obligation to direct service,” said Messinger.
The AJWS has also experienced a significant increase in contributions in recent years. “In the last year we picked up more than 10,000 supporters,” said Messinger.
She attributed the rise to the organization’s support of earthquake relief groups in Turkey and those that helped victims of Hurricane Mitch after it ripped through parts of Central America. But perhaps its widest exposure came when it took out newspaper ads equating the forced deportation of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust. The ads featured Jews in cattle cars, presumably on their way to death camps.
“There was a feeling there needed to be a specific Jewish response to Kosovo because of the element of ethnic cleansing and the sudden existence of more than three-quarters of a million refugees,” said Messinger. “The ad got us significant response and we raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars. In all, we raised over $1 million for Kosovo relief.”
Messinger says she speaks constantly with the people who run the projects AJWS supports, and the grants “allows them to see Jews as people committed to social justice.”
When the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life was established, its founders were not seeking to create a vehicle for Jews to fund environmental groups but rather to bring a “distinctly Jewish response to environmental problems,” said its director, Mark Jacobs.
Referring to the Bible, Jacobs said that as Jews “we are responsible to the creator for sustaining creation for our own benefit, for creation’s own sake, and for future generations. That is something the Sierra Club does not say. It is a distinctly religious idea expressed in Jewish tradition and ideally lived in Jewish lives.”
A contributor to the organization, Rabbi Adam Fisher of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, L.I., said he supports COEJL “because it deals with the fundamental spiritual connection between Jewish life and what we are required to do as Jews. God created the world, and we are put here to tend and care for it. This is God’s world, not our world.”
Rabbi Fisher said he also supports the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, “but they do different things. What COEJL does is what the other organizations can’t do — emphasize the connection between the classic mitzvah of taking care of the world” and the wider environmental movement. “The Sierra Club and the others have more clout in affecting legislation; COEJL can enlighten Jews and educate them to understand that this is a Jewish issue.
“If the Jewish mission is tikkun olam [healing the world], it seems to me that the environment is just as much a part of that as feeding the hungry and justice for Jews and other people.”