Tel Aviv — A revolution of sorts is taking shape in Israel. First it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise two years ago to wean the country of American foreign aid. Then last month he surprised many North American Jewish federation leaders with his pledge to spend Israeli tax dollars to subsidize educational trips to Israel for every Jew age 15 to 26.
Now, a newly created Israeli philanthropy is planning to spend some of the money it raises here to support Jews in distress overseas.
The nation that for much of its 50 years sought all of the financial help it could get, is giving back.
The new philanthropy, begun in February and called The Spirit of Israel, is now employing a marketing strategy that has proven successful in the United States. It has formed a partnership with Ronald McDonald Charities and is to receive a portion of every sale at a McDonald’s store in Israel this month. The partnership is being promoted by McDonald’s through television commercials.
“This is the first time a commercial enterprise has [partnered with a charity] on this scale in Israel,” said Joe Dushansky, executive director of The Spirit of Israel.
Although Dushansky said many Israelis have been making donations to small charities through the years, The Spirit of Israel is the first charitable umbrella organization in the nation; it is comprised of a host of smaller charitable organizations including Zionism 2000, which runs four projects, one of which is an anti-drug program for youth. And rather than emulate the United Jewish Appeal, Dushansky said a decision was made at the outset to adopt a different approach to philanthropy.
“It was important to get across to each and every Israeli the whole concept of philanthropic giving,” he explained to a group of federation executives at the recent General Assembly of UJA Federations of North America. “During the year it took to set up the tax laws, we did research to see if Israelis would give and to what.”
It quickly became evident, said Dushansky, that potential donors were very concerned about where their money would be spent. Someone even joked that he wanted to insert an electronic chip in a shekel to follow it.
That concern led The Spirit of Israel to conduct a survey of the Israeli public to learn what projects they would financially support. About 30,000 to 35,000 people responded by casting ballots in boxes that were set up across the country.
“Some of the sacred cows of Israel were discarded by the people,” said Dushansky. “Our research showed that the public in Israel was not that keen to contribute to aliyah or the olim [new immigrants]. Israelis believe that is the responsibility of Jews abroad. …
“The top three chosen by the public were supplementary education for underprivileged children, family violence, and help to the elderly who require 24-hour nursing care.”
Although aid to the elderly came in third, the 50-member board of directors of The Spirit of Israel selected it because, of the three, it was the only one largely ignored by the country, Dushansky said.
Once the selection was made, a major television network helped to promote the campaign this year by donating airtime for 330 30-second public service announcements. Next year, it has agreed to donate airtime for 400 30-second spots.
Dushansky said only the wealthy can afford the 15,000 to 20,000 shekels (about $5,000) it costs each month for such care.
“The very, very poor are taken care of by the state; it’s the middle class who have a problem,” he said. “We estimate that there are 3,000 to 4,000 of them. … These are our grandparents and parents. They built this nation, they made the desert bloom, they drained the swamps. It’s not surprising that so many people voted for this.”
Still, when the first public service announcement for contributions was aired in February, Dushansky said he was uncertain about the response. “But we received thousands of calls,” he said. “Some people have given two and three times, which goes against everything I learned overseas. We also found that when we sent out a receipt for a gift, some donors would send more money.”
In all, 7,000 donors have contributed a total of 18 million shekels ($4.5 million), according to Nicky Capelouto, the Israel campaign chair.
But sociologist Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said it is “too soon to tell” whether charitable giving will succeed in Israel.
“Israelis are very generous on a personal level, but they are not accustomed to major organized philanthropic drives. One reason is there has never been a prominent business culture in this country. Another is a sense that government is responsible for taking care of major social needs. Another is the sense we are highly taxed.”
He said Americans are “unusual in their devotion to voluntary philanthropy,” giving about four times as much to charity as the French. And Cohen said that although there are no figures available on how much Israelis donate to charity, “Israel comes closer to the European model in its cultural philanthropy.”
But he said that a change is occurring in part because of the growing affluence of Israelis. Israel’s Gross Domestic Product is $17,000 per capita, on a par with Britain. In addition, Israel’s growing business elite is being influenced by contact with philanthropists in the West.
An Israeli advertising executive, Moshe Teomim, said part of the campaign’s success was that it was important to create a common cause in a “country as highly polarized” as Israel. And the fund-raising apparatus, he added, had to be seen as a “joint national effort for all walks of society.”
He said he found in a survey that 72 percent of adult Israelis said they were ready to contribute to a charity, and that 74 percent of Israeli companies said they were already involved in supporting community activities.
Some donors have wanted to direct their gift to a specific project, and Dushansky said that wherever possible that was done. For instance, when someone wanted to donate 1 million shekels ($250,000) to build a synagogue in an area of northern Israel which didn’t have one, but is home to many elderly observant Jews, the project was approved.
Dushansky added that early next year, his organization plans to take a group of donors to the former Soviet Union, Cuba and Argentina to assess the needs of Jews there.
“People tend to give money to those in distress,” he explained.
This month, the campaign shifted its focus to helping children in distress and hooked up with Ronald McDonald Charities, which provides housing to the parents of children who need lengthy hospitalization.
“We’re looking at an overall campaign that in two or three years can reach 250,000 donors,” said Dushansky.