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Some Jewish charities are mining the Internet for donations, and they’re discovering a virtual mother lode.

A survey of online giving by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the Jewish National Fund were the biggest Jewish Web success stories of 2001.

The Chicago federation raised $501,223 online last year, up a whopping 139 percent from the previous year. The JNF raised $375,000, up 65 percent from 2001.

Though still a digital drop in the bucket compared to the tens of millions of dollars these groups raise the old- fashioned way, the executive vice president of the JNF, Russell Robinson, sees great promise in Web fund raising, which he calls “the blue box of the 21st century.”

“Our vision is to raise perhaps in the millions of dollars with e-philanthropy,” Robinson said.

Still, Steven Nasatir, president of the Chicago federation, was cautious about hailing Web fund raising as the next big thing.

“I don’t think you can create community online,” Nasatir said. “It’s another tool to connect with people. We believe in the human, face-to-face, touching people and talking with people” brand of fund raising.

But the Web can enhance the federation’s place in communal life, Nasatir said.

“This is just a further extension that we’re the central place to identify with Israel and with Jewish issues,” he said.

Still, Chicago clearly has convinced many of the 1,500 people who surf the federation’s Web site each day to click on a pledge box and use their credit card.

In 2001, the federation saw a 139 percent jump in online donations over the $210,000 raised in 2000. The site was launched in late 1999.

Back then, the federation’s late chairman of the board, Barbara Hochberg, likened the technological leap in fund raising to the advent of the telephone a century earlier.

“And she was right,” Nasatir said.

The Chicago federation’s online efforts likely will remain a modest part of the group’s overall fund raising, he added. The federation raised $67.2 million in its 2001 campaign, he said, and its regular and Israel Emergency campaigns are on target to bring in $100 million this year.

Trying to raise money exclusively online “would be a very bad idea,” Nasatir said.

Similarly, while the JNF’s electronic fund raising is generating heat, the group raises far more in the physical world.

In 2001, JNF raised $30.1 million, and $35.5 million in 2000. JNF’s site raised $227,000 in 2000 and $100,000 in 1999.

Initially, JNF’s online donations were intended solely for its principal endeavors — forestation and water projects in Israel.

As of April 2002, the tree-planting donations swelled 47 percent over the same period last year.

When the JNF added a component to accept direct donations in March, it took in $25,000 from its 8,500 monthly Web users, and that amount has grown to $50,000 since.

Unlike Chicago’s federation, JNF is taking a more aggressive approach to online fund raising. In an effort to get the word out, JNF sent solicitations about e-fund raising to 35,000 people on an e-mail list, according to Sarina Roffe, JNF’s director of communications.

“We’re getting ready to do a lot of e-commerce,” Roffe said. “As a not-for-profit,” the Web “gives us a tremendous way to reach people all over the world.”

But it remains unclear whether Jewish groups can increase their online fund raising and dig up even more donations. Mark Charendoff, associate executive director of the Jewish Funders Network, said Jewish nonprofits remain in the early stages of hunting for digital donations.

“We’ll have to see if this is a convenient alternative to writing a check,” Charendoff said. “It’s the convenience factor for the consumer.”

In fact, Charendoff said that the few Jewish forays into online fund raising are largely aimed at “impulse giving” rather than more ambitious sums.

So far, “I don’t think the Jewish community has been creative enough in using the Web, besides ‘click here and use your credit card,’ ” he said.

“The challenge to Jewish not-for-profits is to make the Web more than an alternative to writing a check and putting it in the mail,” he added. “I’m not sure it is.”

The June survey of 126 large organizations raising money online included seven major Jewish charities or institutions. Besides the Chicago federation and JNF, they were:

UJA-Federation of New York, which raised $65,646 online in 2001;

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, $40,051 in 2001;

Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, $37,008 in 2001;

The National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, $4,262 in 2001; and

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation, $2,500 in 2001.

Several mainstream groups took in far greater sums online, and some of the big giving appeared to be the result of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The United Way of New York’s tri-state area, for example, took in $27 million online in 2001, up 800 percent over the year before.

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