Israelis Are Learning to Give with Help from Philanthropy Experts

It’s standing room only at a workshop for Israelis on how to set up a family foundation.

Well-heeled participants listen attentively as an American consultant to foundations such as the family foundations of Bill Gates and the descendants of Levi Strauss offer tips.

“What difference do you want to make in the community?” asks Virginia Esposito, the founding president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. “Think about the causes you care about.”

As a growing number of Israelis make their fortunes in high tech, real estate and other business ventures, Israeli philanthropy is beginning to expand. It represents the beginnings of a shift for a country that long has been the beneficiary of philanthropy, much of it from Diaspora Jews, but has less experience in the way of giving.

“The culture of giving that finds expression in the American culture does not yet exist in Israeli culture, but it’s starting to move forward,” said Yaron Sokolov, director of the nonprofit umbrella group Civic Leadership.

“The public is becoming increasingly convinced that it’s important to have a healthy civil society,” he said, “and that there should be funding not just for welfare but for the arts, sports and education.”

Sokolov was among some 400 people who attended a June 18 conference on philanthropy and civil society — the largest event of its kind ever in Israel. Joining him were top government officials, potential and current Israeli philanthropists, and social and cultural activists.

The event was put together by Sheatufim, which promotes partnerships between Israeli philanthropists and social organizations in need of funding.

Judith Yovel Recanati, a member of one of Israel’s wealthiest families, established the Gandyr Foundation, a family foundation that focuses on young adults, youth movements on Israel’s periphery and civic society projects. She says private giving in Israel is making strides but still has a long way to go.

Growing numbers of donors “see themselves as partners in the development of society and are taking responsibility for projects and are giving in an impressive way, and it’s very encouraging,” she said. “But there is more to be done. The gifts are not big enough, and the number of individual and corporate givers could grow a lot.”

Gauging how much giving is taking place in Israel is difficult, says Sheatufim director Shlomo Dushi, due to a lack of government oversight of philanthropy.

Dushi notes that family foundations have not been given legal status by the government and gifts above $1 million are not privy to tax exemptions. Israeli philanthropists are pressing the government to provide incentives for large gifts by increasing tax benefits.

But Dushi says the trend of increased philanthropy is illustrated by the growing number of major family foundations — five in the past three years — that have been established. Also, the increase of potential donors approaching Sheatufim about giving and how best to channel their money and efforts.

For most of Israel’s history, Diaspora Jewry has borne the brunt of funding social projects, including immigrant absorption, health and welfare. Until recently, funding potential within Israel was limited: the government was perennially short on cash, there was little big business, and the pool of wealthy individuals and families was small.

But that is changing with Israel’s economic boom and the creation of a new class of super-rich. Last year, the combined assets of Israel’s wealthiest individuals totaled $81 billion, surpassing the country’s entire national budget.

Rachel Liel, the director of Shatil, the capacity-building arm for organizations sponsored by the New Israel Fund, says that when she goes to the United States these days on fund-raising tours, people ask her, “What about Israelis giving to Israel?”

The economic boom notwithstanding, the number of disadvantaged Israelis has grown and government social services have been reduced as the Israeli economy moves further away from its socialist roots to a more capitalist system.

“Despite the increased wealth in the country, the gaps keep growing,” said Ronny Douek, the businessman who chairs Sheatufim. “There are hundreds of NGOs trying to deal with the crisis, but real changes can only be made if there are new types of partnerships and involvement.”

It falls to Israeli civic groups and philanthropists to fill the gaps. Increasingly, Israelis are able to do so.

The 2006 Lebanon war is considered a watershed moment for Israeli giving.

With the government slow to deliver help to Israelis in the North during the war, private citizens stepped in to volunteer their time, money and aid. Particularly, they helped elderly, handicapped and poor Israelis under attack from Hezbollah rockets.

Many citizens were involved in donations to grass-roots groups such as La’tet, a food relief organization. Russian-Israeli tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak received major attention for setting up a sprawling tent camp on a southern beach for war refugees seeking a respite from the attacks.

Rina Bar-Tal, who chairs the Israel Women’s Network, says her organization has seen a change in the giving habits of Israelis.

She says that when her group was founded in 1984, it subsisted primarily on overseas donations. But in the past eight years, 60 percent of its funding has come from Israelis and 40 percent from overseas gifts.

“People are beginning to realize that besides buying more cars, boats, houses and trips around the world, they might owe something to the society they live in,” said Bar-Tal, who is also the director of the Center for Lay Leadership, which provides leadership training to nonprofits.

Avi Naor is an example of a new breed of Israeli philanthropist. In 2002, he stepped down as the president and CEO of Amdocs, a major Israeli-founded high-tech company, to devote himself to philanthropy. His primary project is Or Yarok, a road safety group he founded after his son Ran was killed in a car accident.

Naor says he is better known now than he ever was during his years in business. He says that among his friends, interest is growing in finding causes and organizations to support. Many, he adds, give without fanfare, recognition or public notice.

While Israeli philanthropic work is growing, Israel still needs the Diaspora to be engaged, Naor says.

“It’s very important, but it’s not just an issue of money,” he said. “It’s about connections and interaction. This is not about giving to us as poor cousins anymore but as working together as partners.”

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