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As in Past Crises, U.S. Jews Open Their Wallets when Israel’s in Trouble

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Hezbollah rockets may have stopped for now — but the American Jewish response to the crisis has not. When American Jews think about Israel’s war with Hezbollah, they recall numbers — 1948, 1967, 1973 — that mark previous wars of survival for the Jewish state. They also respond in numbers — dollars, that is.

“Philanthropically, American Jews feel such a sense of connectedness to Israel,” said Darrell Friedman, a consultant to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and former president of Baltimore’s Jewish federation.

When Jews feel their homeland is under siege, their philanthropic instincts kick into high gear.

“It’s our tradition,” Friedman said. “Jews will take care of Jews.”

That’s evidenced by the innumerable emergency campaigns under way and by the mere existence of the North American Jewish federation system, an unparalleled philanthropic network among American ethnic groups.

On Aug. 7, the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella launched a massive campaign to ease the humanitarian crisis in Israel, with the goal of raising hundreds of millions of dollars. So far it has raised $173 million.

Much of those funds are being channeled through programs being run by the UJC’s main overseas partners, the JDC, which provides humanitarian relief in Israel and abroad, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which manages immigration and absorption in Israel and Zionist education worldwide.

The UJC campaign is the Jewish community’s largest fund-raising response, but the options for giving right now are broad. The crisis has given rise to new organizational partnerships, has brought certain groups to prominence and has elicited a mix of approaches to fund raising.

Efforts have focused on emergency services like first aid, upgrading bomb shelters, sending children from Israel’s northern region to summer camps in the center of the country and feeding and housing Israelis who have fled their homes.

But the needs are still developing and are sure to grow after the war, as Israelis begin rebuilding their cities and their lives.

The tenuous cease-fire reached Monday does not change that fact — and it’s an open question how long the cease-fire will last.

The Israel Emergency Campaign was “established with a long-term view,” UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz said. “So many needs exist, including economic revival, infrastructure and facility rebuilding, support for victims of terror and post-traumatic stress counseling for Israelis being among them.”

Even as the UJC announced initial plans to raise $300 million, its board determined that another $200 million would be necessary.

“It’s a moving target,” said Howard Rieger, UJC’s president and CEO.

As the needs of the monthlong war became apparent, private and public philanthropies began working together to respond.

The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies’ after-school program for disadvantaged Israeli youth ran a special operation in bomb shelters with support from the Jewish Agency and the JDC.

Like many other foundations, the Bronfman philanthropies used supplemental funds for the crisis in Israel to avoid detracting from other programs.

“There’s no question that we’ve seen people reallocating, but I think what’s been more striking is the number of people that we’ve seen not wanting to reallocate,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, whose 1,200 members include some of the biggest Jewish names in philanthropy around the world.

Most foundations already have set their budgets and commitments, so the principals are taking money from their personal wealth, he said.

That goes for average donors as well. According to Gary Tobin, an expert on Jewish giving, “People do not give anywhere near to their capacity, so when they feel emergencies, they give more of what they’re able.”

History has shown that the federation system’s emergency campaigns tend to boost its general campaigns, Rieger said.

However, a special federation campaign that was already under way — Operation Promise, which aids the absorption of Ethiopians in Israel and funds welfare and renewal efforts in the former Soviet Union — likely will take a backseat, Rieger said.

Meanwhile, donors are taking different approaches to giving. In an era of increased independent giving — that is, donations made outside of central community campaigns — some foundations are partnering with private groups in Israel.

Steve and Linda Geringer of Phoenix gave an initial $18,000 via the Jewish Funders Network to the Sacta-Rashi Foundation in Israel, which was helping with the crisis. Geringer, a JFN board member, said he trusted JFN and Sacta-Rashi to make “two dollars out of every one dollar.”

Other foundations take the traditional route, supporting the federation system.

Chicago’s Arie and Ida Crown Memorial donated $10 million to the Israel Emergency Campaign, said Charles Goodman, a member of the board.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore put $5 million toward the federation campaign, trustee Barry Schloss said.

The foundation normally donates to the federation, including some $3 million of the $100 million it gave away last year. But it gave 15 percent to 20 percent of that $100 million directly to the JDC, a federation beneficiary.

“In this case we felt that we needed to get the money out and spent,” Schloss said. The “best way to do that was through the overall federation system, which will probably raise more money than any individual charity.”

The crisis has catapulted certain organizations to the forefront of the American Jewish philanthropic scene.

Israel Bonds, for example, raised $30 million in two days through 11 events around the country with high-profile Israelis like Ra’anan Gissin, foreign media adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Daniel Ayalon, said Raphael Rothstein, Israel Bond’s spokesman.

The American Friends of Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, is “up to our eyeballs” in checks — an unprecedented $5 million since the war’s outbreak — executive vice president Daniel Allen said.

Some of that money is due to completely new partnerships. For example, a foundation connected to the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati donated $300,000 for blood-testing kits. MDA is in conversation with five other federations as well.

“This could well be a serious breakthrough event, unfortunately, that indicates that people will continue to be significant supporters of MDA in Israel,” Allen said. “I think people want to give to something in Israel where they know they are directly and immediately affecting the lives of people.”

The crisis also has shown the extent to which some people try to take a targeted approach.

“When it comes to donating money, people have their own special causes, and someone who is passionate about ‘X’ is going to want to give to a fund that directs its resources to that issue,” said Emily Grotta, director of marketing and communications for the Union of Reform Judaism, which is running its own Israel Emergency Fund.

The Reform movement has raised more than $500,000 so far and allocated more than half — $10,000 to the UJC, $10,000 to MDA and the remainder to Reform groups providing general relief on the ground.

The Conservative movement is asking congregations to donate to the Masorti movement, its Israeli counterpart, which is funding its own emergency programs and those of others, said Raymond Goldstein, international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

So far, the movement has raised less than $100,000, but will ramp up the campaign with personal phone solicitations, Goldstein said.

The Orthodox Union also has an Israel Emergency Fund which to date has raised $350,000. While much of its focus was on visiting bomb shelters during the war, the on fund raising will continue to help rebuild communities in the North, said Stephen Steiner, O.U.’s director of public relations.

Within the movements, many synagogues are running individual campaigns. On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun employed a Tisha B’Av appeal that raised more than $90,000 for groups including a yeshiva and a Jerusalem soup kitchen.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein also scheduled a Shabbat morning appeal to ask members to at least match their annual federation gift with a donation to the federation emergency campaign.

He said he was “a little bit worried” that many organizations are “pushing for money knowing that American Jews are looking to help.” People should first fund “organizations like UJC which know what they’re doing” along with “targeted causes that will help people in crisis.”

To be sure, the UJC’s campaign is by far the most massive response to the crisis.

“When the day is done,” Rieger said, “this will be a defining moment for the federation system,” one that affirms its unique mission.

“For all the reasons people don’t identify with” central community organizations, when the “chips are down, they know that’s the only place to go,” he said. “Right now there’s nothing more significant that we can do than finding ways to contribute money.”

Israelis may answer enemy threats with reserve duty, Rieger said.

For American Jews, “this is our answer.”

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