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Focus on Issues: New Charities Shatter Myth About Philanthropy in Israel

December 1, 1998
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Diaspora Jews give dollars to Israel, while Israeli Jews give their lives.

So goes the common conception that philanthropy in Israel is a one-way street, with North American Jews doing all the “giving” and Israelis doing only the “taking.”

That myth is being shattered by an explosion of philanthropic efforts in Israel that has been building over the past few years and really erupted during the last 12 months. In the last year alone:

A grassroots fund-raising campaign, called Spirit of Israel, in which Israelis give to earmarked programs run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, was launched and has already brought in 17,000 contributions totaling some $4.5 million.

A Lion of Judah campaign, modeled after the United Jewish Appeal Women’s Division program bearing the same name, has been launched in Israel and already counts 56 members among its ranks.

A United Way-style campaign has set up shop in Israel and is hoping to launch its first campaign next March.

“There are fantastic changes taking place here,” says Nicky Capelouto, a businessman who immigrated here from South Africa 20 years ago and now chairs the Spirit of Israel campaign.

“We’ve got a society that is moving forward with a sense of responsibility for its own issues.”

This new burst of philanthropic initiatives can be attributed to a number of factors. First and foremost is Israel’s new affluence.

There are now 2,500 millionaire families in Israel, according to Shalom Elcott, who is preparing to launch a nationwide United Way campaign here.

“We’ve reached a point in Israel where there is enough wealth to contribute to social causes,” says Moshe Teomim, co-owner of what is reputed to be Israel’s largest market research and advertising agency.

And according to Teomim, Israelis are already doing so. A recent survey conducted by his firm found that 72 percent of Israelis contribute money to a cause, and 74 percent of commercial businesses are involved in community causes of some sort.

Part of the push has come from Diaspora fund-raisers, who have been trying to foster the notion of a philanthropic “partnership” in recent years. The Jewish Agency was considered a major impetus behind the Spirit of Israel campaign and provided much of the seed money for the project.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has also launched a number of projects in Israel during the past decade aimed at developing an indigenous network of social services funded by Israelis.

Among those projects is an umbrella group called the Third Sector, which serves as a sort of clearinghouse for Israeli self-help groups. Today 350 not-for- profit agencies belong to the Third Sector, which has become a Good Housekeeping-style seal of approval for these charities.

But there has also been a strong push for philanthropy from within Israeli society, as many Israelis have become increasingly concerned about a number of social problems facing the country that they do not think the government is capable of addressing.

One of those Israelis is Ronny Douek, a 40-year-old businessman from Ramat Hasharon who founded Zionism 2000 — a movement aimed not only at aiding social causes but also at bringing about social change in Israel.

Douek was spurred to action a few years ago by a feature story in the Israeli mass daily Yediot Achronot about the depressed living conditions in the “caravans” set up for recent immigrants from Ethiopia. Disgusted at how the Ethiopians were being treated, Douek set up a charitable trust to fund the construction of community centers at three of the housing sites.

A year later, Douek turned his energy to another social problem that he felt the government was neglecting: drug abuse among Israeli teen-agers. He set up Alternative, a mobile campaign that seeks to educate teens about the dangers of using drugs.

The program operates out of two buses that have been converted into hip-looking mobile screening rooms. Teens invited inside watch a film about an “acid party” gone bad, which is followed up by a discussion with a drug counselor about the risks of substance abuse.

The program originally received a cold shoulder from the Education Ministry and other agencies dealing with the drug problem. But the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin embraced it, and the program now receives government funding.

“Today we’re the most important anti-drug information project in the country,” says Douek, adding that the program has already reached some 150,000 Israeli youth.

But it was the assassination of Rabin that convinced Douek that the nation’s social problems were a symptom of a larger problem of national attitude and values. And so he gathered together a group of 200 thinkers — business people, journalists, actors, lawyers and others — and created Zionism 2000: A Movement for Social Responsibility.

Today the philanthropy, based at this kibbutz, sponsors three major projects: Leadership 2000, an education and service program aimed at fostering democratic values and leadership skills among youth; Business for the Community, a program aimed at getting corporations to take on community improvement projects; and Extend a Hand to One Child, a program in which well-off families volunteer and provide cash assistance to children from needy families, so that they can receive better educational opportunities.

The idea behind these projects is not only to supplement government efforts to address various social problems, but also to help ordinary Israelis develop a sense of responsibility for their fellow citizens.

“There are hundreds of people in our organization who are giving hours of their time to do something” says Douek. Israelis are beginning to “control their own destiny and the destiny of the country.”

Fostering that sense of responsibility is also a goal of the Spirit of Israel campaign. The campaign was the brainchild of Avraham Burg, the charismatic chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive.

Burg and the Jewish Agency itself have been trying to develop the idea of an Israel-Diaspora philanthropic partnership, rather than the more traditional one-way flow of money from UJA campaigns to the Jewish state.

It would be wrong, though, to think of Spirit of Israel as the Israeli branch of the United Jewish Appeal. For its founders recognized immediately that a different type of “culture of giving” would be needed on Israeli soil.

“We felt it was important that this campaign be representative of the masses,” says Joe Dushansky, the campaign’s executive director. “We want to try to get across to every Israeli the importance of philanthropy.”

And so the campaign set up polling stations all over Israel last year in which voters were asked to rank their philanthropic priorities. The cause that won was providing assistance to elderly needy people, in a country where there is a shortage of beds for people requiring around-the-clock nursing care.

Last spring, the group launched a campaign dedicated solely to providing assistance for the elderly. One of Israel’s television stations pitched in by agreeing to air a series of 30-second public service announcements promoting the campaign. And during the month of December, McDonald’s restaurants in Israel are contributing a percentage of their profits to the charity.

Spirit of Israel hopes eventually to reach 250,000 donors, by focusing on many small gifts, rather than a few large ones. “We treat the donor of one shekel the same as everyone else,” Dushansky explains.

Another type of mass appeal is just now getting under way. This one is an attempt to set up a United Way campaign in Israel, in which employees would donate a portion of their paychecks to a philanthropy of their choice.

The project, which opened its offices in September, was initiated by Shari Arison, president of the Arison Foundation and a member of the family that owns Carnival Cruise Lines. It hopes to begin raising money next March.

“We’re trying to take a concept that’s about 100 years old and replicate it in Israel,” explains Shalom Elcott, the project’s director.

“Our objective is to empower people,” he says. “We think that we can effect a major change that will ultimately reduce the obligations of Diaspora Jewry” to fund humanitarian needs in Israel.

How well these various philanthropic initiatives will succeed, and whether they will become a permanent weave in Israel’s social fabric are questions that remain to be answered.

“There are a lot of people around who say this is not going to fly, who are waiting for this to fail,” says Dushansky of Spirit of Israel.

But the sheer number and scale of the various philanthropic initiatives that have been launched in the last few years is proof itself that Israelis feel a new sense of responsibility to help their own.

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