Groups Use High Holidays to Elicit Support for Israel

The High Holiday season has traditionally been the time of year when many rabbis make appeals to their congregation to give money to Israel — most often in the form of the purchase of Israel Bonds. But this year the market that Israel Bonds seemed to have cornered in years past is a bit tighter, as other organizations, most notably the United Jewish Communities, step up with mass appeals of their own.

Shortly after Israel’s 34-day war with Hezbollah in Lebanon began, the UJC, the umbrella organization for North America’s federation system, stepped up its campaign to raise some $500 million that Israel said it will need to rebuild, according to the UJC’s vice president for Israel and overseas projects, Doron Krakow.

The federation system saw a major influx of money at the beginning of the war, raising nearly $300 million in its first weeks. But after the war stopped, the donations slowed, Krakow said.

As a result, the UJC asked the four major streams of Judaism to ask its congregations to make appeals during the holiday run, the first time that it has ever done so, Krakow said.

The Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements agreed to ask their rabbis to make specific pitches to their congregations for the campaign.

The Reform Movement issued a strong endorsement of the campaign, while not specifically asking its congregations to make appeals. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that Reform rabbis don’t usually make specific fund-raising appeals during the holiday season because of a concern that doing so would cut into the spiritual message.

In addition to the UJC’s campaign, other groups are mounting major campaigns for Israel. The Jewish National Fund, for instance, has also started a 10-year, $400 million campaign to help Israel rebuild, JNF’s CEO, Russell Robinson, told JTA. In a conference call with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the group reached out to rabbis around the country to elicit support before the holidays.

But is there enough money to go around?

Those involved think there will be, and though a healthy competition might take place, they don’t anticipate a problem.

Last year, about 500 congregations throughout the country held Israel Bonds campaigns during the High Holidays, bringing in $80 million in purchases, said Israel Bonds’ national director of synagogue and rabbinic activity, Rabbi Martin Pasternak.

Israel Bonds, which sells bonds as opposed to seeking charitable contributions, added 20 to 30 campaigns this year, a number that pleases the organization.

“We’ve been doing this for 55 years,” he said. “So we don’t expect dramatic increases in the number of campaigns each year. We are embedded in our market at this point. So an increase of 20 to 30 is significant.”

Israel Bonds changed the theme of its campaign shortly after the war in Lebanon began, from “Your family, our heritage: Israel’s future” to the general theme of rebuilding, Pasternak said. He expects that the organization will again sell about $80 million this year.

The organizations receiving the dollars raised in the United States don’t anticipate a battle between the groups raising the money because the American Jewish community in the past has stepped up when Israel is in need, said Jay Sarver, chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors.

“There were billions of dollars of damage done to small businesses, the education system, and others,” said Sarver of St. Louis. “The need is so large that it would be silly for one organization to claim a pre-eminent role. They are all partners.”

As a result, local congregational leaders decided for themselves which fund-raising plan to push.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore said that he was choosing both. His annual Israel Bonds pitch is normally the highest-grossing campaign around the country. Last year his 1,250-family congregation purchased $800,000 in Bonds.

This year, he will also make a pitch for the Israel Emergency Campaign before the Ne’ilah service at the end of Yom Kippur. And though he normally makes some sort of pitch for his local federation, “I’ll probably lay it on a little thicker than usual this year,” he said.

And that’s what the fund-raising organizations want to see, said the UJC’s Krakow.

“When it comes to individual communities and congregations, they will make their own judgments about what is the right way to give money. We certainly are not looking to injure anyone in that process,” he said. “There is some competition, but from our point of view, there is a collegial understanding that we are all out there together.

“There is so much money in the American Jewish community, there is no reason why we can’t all be successful,” he said.

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