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Behind the Headlines: Federations Raising More Money As Crisis in Israel Motivates Donors

The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County in Florida is launching its annual “Super Sunday” fund-raising telethon with a “Solidarity Sunday” next month.

The event, in which volunteers call donors and ask them to increase their annual contribution, is triggered by “what’s going on in Israel and the feeling that people want to do something,” said Jeffrey Klein, the federation’s executive vice president.

Concern about Israel has led to a jump in fund raising, said Klein.

He said his community’s campaign, which is just getting started for 2001, has already raised over $4 million, more than twice the $2 million it had raised last year at this time.

Palm Beach is not alone. As they launch their annual campaigns, numerous American Jewish federations are focusing on Israel and finding that the crisis in Israel is fueling increased giving to their campaigns.

In addition, leaders with the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for North American federations, say they are modifying fund- raising letters and brochures to “concentrate heavily” on Israel and the need for solidarity.

The new focus on Israel is a sharp departure from recent years.

A growing number of federations — confident that peace was on Israel’s horizon and overwhelmed by Jewish continuity and social service needs at home — had been keeping more of their campaign revenues at home and sending less overseas.

In 1999, federations allocated $237.7 million for overseas needs, approximately 75 percent of which went to the Jewish Agency for Israel, one of the federation system’s two overseas partners.

The Jewish Agency’s primary work is to bring new immigrants to Israel and to help absorb them into Israeli society.

But if Israel’s woes are now spawning more contributions, it is not yet clear where the additional dollars raised will go.

Even less clear right now is whether the current concern about Israel will translate into a long-term shift in American Jews’ relationship to Israel or whether it is simply a short-term reaction to the immediate crisis.

For now, various crisis-related projects are in the talking stages, but federations have not been told of specific new needs that North American Jews should be funding.

“We have suggested to our donors that they symbolically think about increasing their annual campaign gift as a measure of solidarity with Israel. But because neither the UJC nor the Jewish Agency has articulated specific human service needs associated with this crisis, it’s difficult to draw a direct line between the crisis and the campaign,” said Lee Wunsch, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

Robert Aronson, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, agreed, pointing out that the bulk of federation allocations fund ongoing humanitarian and social service needs.

“I really believe there’s no direct relation between what we’re raising money for and the political crisis in Israel,” he said.

“We should continue to raise money, but should not be pushing the panic button,” Aronson said, adding that his federation already allocates almost half its campaign dollars for overseas needs.

However, many federation officials are reasoning that as military needs demand more attention from the Israeli government and economy, it is the American Jewish community’s role to pitch in with increased resources for social needs that risk being neglected.

“We already have the expectation that more and more money will go to the army, eventually at the expense of social services and the vulnerable populations,” Sallai Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

“This is definitely a time for world Jewry to share with Israelis,” he said. There are “definitely very clear and identified needs that have to be addressed,” such as absorbing new immigrants, particularly Ethiopians and orphans.

Stephen Hoffman, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said, “The things we’re working on are social problems, and when you have a crisis, the social problems get worse because other people’s attention gets diverted.”

Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said Israel will definitely need more money this year, and that his federation will increase its allocations to Israel if its campaign nets more money.

“You don’t have to be genius to figure it out,” he said. “If the hotels are empty and the economy is taking a hit and more reservists are being called to duty, Israel will need more assistance.”

In addition to helping with ongoing social needs, new projects related to the crisis are under discussion, said Meridor and Robert Schrayer, the national chair of the UJC’s campaign and financial resource development.

That includes potential projects to strengthen the Jewish infrastructure in Jerusalem neighborhoods, like Gilo, that have been hit by Palestinian gunfire, as well as the Jewish community in the Galilee.

Security infrastructure, such as protecting ambulances and school buses from terrorist attacks, may also be funding possibilities, said Meridor.

Also under consideration are coexistence projects for Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Jewish concern over tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs has grown following a series of Arab demonstrations in the Galilee in the early days of the violence.

Regardless of how the funds are spent, federation leaders say they will not rely on the problems in Israel to subsidize domestic needs such as Jewish day schools and nursing homes.

“If we raise our money more than ever before on the backs of Israel, then we have to make sure a representative portion goes overseas,” said Klein of Palm Beach.

Asked if he is concerned that federations may focus on Israel in their campaigns, but keep any increased dollars raised for local needs, Schrayer said, “Good question. I hope the answer will be that we treat the Israel partnership as such and recognize that these monies being given to a greater extent are because of the conflict.”

With federation allocations to Israel and Jews around the world declining overall, the UJC had created a new allocations process that was designed, in part, to reverse the trend.

The vehicle for that process, the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution committee, helps American Jewish leaders learn more about overseas needs and gives them greater control over how overseas allocations are spent.

The committee — composed primarily of federation leaders — recommended in June that federations allocate 105 percent, or at least 100 percent, of what they gave in 1998.

The recommendations asked federations to give 85 to 90 percent to a central pot divvied up between the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

But it allowed federations to choose — from a list of pre-approved projects – – where 10 to 15 percent of their allocations would go.

It is not yet clear how much the recommendations have been followed, since the majority of allocations will not be finalized until the end of December. Those involved with ONAD say most federations are at least maintaining their 1998 allocation, a finding confirmed through an informal sampling of large federations.

Less clear, is whether the ONAD process or the current crisis or both, will spur increased overseas allocations in the coming years.

“This is not the way we want to have heightened interest in Israel,” said Alan Jaffe, chair of the ONAD committee, but added, “Sure it’s going to change things.”

JAFI’s Meridor said, “I pray this crisis will be over soon and that at the same time we won’t go back to this tendency of inwardness and less connectedness.”

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