Questions Over Outpouring Of Gaza War Philanthropy
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Questions Over Outpouring Of Gaza War Philanthropy

As U.S. donations to Israel soar, are other causes at risk?

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

The outpouring of money seemed extraordinary, even by Hamptons’ standards.

It was Shabbos morning, Aug. 9, the Gaza war was raging and Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, took to the bima for an impromptu appeal.

Twenty minutes later, the rabbi had pledges of $1.1 million in hand for UJA-Federation of New York’s Israel Emergency Fund.

“There was a feeling of urgency in the congregation,” said Rabbi Schneier, who noted that his flock had already ponied up $10.5 million for Israel Bonds in July, and was in the midst of raising $500,000 for defibrillators for Israel’s embattled southern region.

“The feeling was, ‘If not now, when?’” said Rabbi Schneier, who made the pitch with Jerry Levin, UJA-Federation’s former board chairman.

The enthusiastic response at The Hampton Synagogue was repeated — though perhaps not as dramatically — at Jewish institutions across the country during the seven weeks of fighting between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip.

Bankrolling everything from ambulances to automatic locks on bomb shelters to vacations for families living in Israel’s south, American philanthropic dollars poured in by the millions. Golf tournaments, mixers, rallies and impromptu synagogue solicitations tenaciously sought donations for weeks on end. UJA-Federation of New York alone raised $8.3 million in the last six weeks. Through its “Stop the Sirens” campaign, the Jewish Federation of North America, the umbrella group for federations nationwide, allocated more than $18 million over seven weeks.

But the outpouring of donations is raising questions in Jewish philanthropic circles. Was the response equal to the need? Was the money given with the heart and not the head? Should Israel be picking up the tab for some of what American money funded? And most importantly, did the rush to allocate funds compromise strategic and effective giving, and perhaps harm other causes?

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, said that “just pouring in money at one moment in time” demonstrates a serious lack of foresight.

“There is a major disconnect between the emotional stress caused by a crisis and the calm reasoning needed for a wise philanthropic strategy,” said Solomon, who advised the organization to give gradually as needs in Israel arose.

“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 the knowing where needs would emerge.

“There’s a difference between giving money quickly and allocating money quickly,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, a private grant making foundation. “If a donor gives generously in the face of a crisis, the foundation has a responsibility to allocate those funds effectively, keeping long term needs in mind,” said Charendoff, who recently headed the Jewish Funders Network.

Another question raised by the war philanthropy is how it will affect donations to other charitable causes, including schools, services for the elderly and local aid to those in need?

“That’s the real question that needs to be asked,” said Dan Brown, founder of eJewish Philanthropy, an online resource for Jewish philanthropies and activists. “How will the focus on giving to Israel affect federation campaigns four or five months from now?” He noted that after previous conflicts, large expenditures on aid to Israel didn’t have an overall negative effect on other causes. Still, the true impact of the war on American philanthropies will only become apparent after several months, he said. “When it’s a war, you can’t sit around and strategize in advance, but the true impact will become apparent down the line.”

As donations poured in during Operation Protective Edge, the name Israel gave to the war in Gaza, grant-makers struggled with the same question: Where to give?

“During the recent conflict, the fundraising process was different than in the past,” said Rebecca Dinar, spokeswoman for the Jewish Federations of North America. “In the past, Jewish communal entities would set a fundraising goal, and try and meet that goal. This time, fundraising efforts changed as the needs in Israel evolved. An allocations committee met weekly to discuss what was needed that week,” she said.

Allocations were divided between aiding vulnerable Israelis, including families in the south, where rocket fire from Hamas was the fiercest, hospital workers and lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, those without family in Israel, and stimulating economic recovery. “Now, more than ever, Israel needs us,” reads the campaign’s informational pamphlet.

As the American Jewish community ramped up fundraising efforts, Israeli organizations ramped up solicitations. One example: the Foundation for Homefront Security in Israel mailed out personal solicitations, asking for donations to support “The Gatekeeper Project,” described in its pamphlet as a “cutting-edge command and control system for immediate access to public shelters.” After a rocket is fired, a warning is transferred to the Gatekeepers “beeper” hub and the shelter is opened automatically. Previously, the Foundation explained, people would run to a shelter after hearing a siren only to find it locked. Each Gatekeeper system costs $5,500.

A source within the Jewish philanthropic world, who asked for anonymity because he didn’t want to be seen criticizing Israel, questioned why American philanthropic dollars were funding projects seemingly under the Israeli government’s domain.

“It’s one thing for philanthropy to deal with the nuances of need,” the source said, citing an initiative to donate games to shelters so children wouldn’t be bored, “but it’s another thing for American dollars to fix up shelters and bankroll rescue efforts. There are government provisions set aside for these needs.”

Rob Rosenthal, chief marketing officer of American Friends of Magen David Adom, the largest supporter the Israeli disaster-relief organization Magen David Adom, said that 80 percent of discretionary money received by the organization comes from the U.S. From June 19 through the end of August, American Friends of Magen David Adom raised $8.4 million from American donations plus an additional $2.9 million in pledges.

“The response we received from the American Jewish community during Operation Protective Edge has been exceptionally strong,” said Rosenthal, saying the magnitude of the response compared only to the 2006 Lebanon War. The past two conflicts in Gaza — in 2008-2009 and 2012 — paled in comparison.

“This time, there was a sense that Israel had been infiltrated and was a lot more vulnerable,” said Rosenthal. “Israel was also so harshly beleaguered in world opinion that Americans felt they had to compensate in terms of support,” he said.

Aside from basic needs (needles, blood bags), American dollars funded mobile intensive care units ($125,000 each), basic life support ambulances ($100,000 each) and combined ECG-defibrillators ($30,000 each).

“We had so many mobile ICUs that we had to tell donors we needed more basic ambulances instead,” said Rosenthal.

All Magen David Adom ambulances were purchased with donation dollars. “We haven’t had to resort to a plan B because that money hasn’t dried up,” he added.

The vast amount of money sent to Israel over the past seven weeks and the diverse purposes for which it’s been used begs the question: what is the role of the philanthropic dollar?

“It is the funder’s role to identify gaps in the state’s systemic response, and fill those gaps,” said Andrés Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, which advises Jewish foundations on their grant-making strategy. Though he wasn’t able to give an exact figure, Spokoiny said “several millions of dollars” have been given to Israel through JFN over the course of Operation Protective Edge.

“Who does the system overlook? That’s the question we should ask.” He gave the example of trauma counselors. “Yes, there’s a strong system in place for dealing with trauma victims, but who’s counseling the counselors?” he said.

Though progress has been made in this area, the line between basic essentials and supplementary needs remains blurred.

“To the credit of the federations, a lot has been learned about giving more strategically,” said Solomon. “Back in the day, American charities would be putting air conditioners in shelters, and three weeks later, those air conditioners were gone. But there is still a lot of progress to be made.”

Hannah@jewishweek.org

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