(New York Jewish Week) — When Tracey Weiner’s rabbi, Elliot Cosgrove, took the unusual step of asking her to pull out her phone during services last Friday night, at the beginning of the first Shabbat after a massacre of more than 1,300 Israelis, she listened.
Weiner hadn’t necessarily planned to donate to an Israel Emergency Fund opened by New York City’s Jewish federation, but sitting in the sanctuary of Park Avenue synagogue, she scanned a QR code and gave.
“When you hear your rabbi asking for something for a crisis you just can’t not help,” said Weiner, a mom of three on the Upper East Side.
In making the donation, Weiner joined thousands of other New Yorkers in contributing to an aid effort that is widely considered unparalleled in recent times.
Her behavior also reflected the degree to which a handful of institutions have played an outsized role in the city’s fundraising efforts. Park Avenue is on its way to bringing in $18 million to an Israel Emergency Fund at the UJA-Federation of New York, while an Orthodox synagogue a few blocks away has raised $7 million, and a Reform synagogue two miles south announced it has raised $15 million.
Together, the three synagogues contributed nearly half of the $90 million the UJA fund brought in by early this week. As of Friday, that number had increased to $105 million, according to UJA-Federation’s public relations director, Emily Kutner.
“We’re seeing unprecedented generosity beyond anyone’s wildest expectations,” said Mark Medin, UJA-Federation’s executive vice president. (UJA-Federation is a funder of 70 Faces Media, New York Jewish Week’s parent company.) He said the number of donations are “fully understandable given the gravity of the situation in Israel and the desire of New Yorkers to want to help.”
The spike in giving follows a pattern set out by American Jews in 1967 and 1973, the last two times Israel faced invasions from neighboring territories. But the amount flowing to UJA, which as the city’s federation collects and distributes philanthropy according to local needs and priorities, is actually less than in those years.
One change is that, compared to half a century ago, U.S. Jews can now donate with relative ease directly to Israeli charities and to research a wide array of possible destinations for their financial support. That means the fundraising totals reported by UJA and other federations are likely to reflect a smaller proportion of the total transfer of resources from the United States toward Israel since Oct. 7.
Synagogues are also less powerful forces than they were half a century ago. In 1970, just under half of American Jews said they belonged to a synagogue. According to the most recent Pew survey of U.S. Jews, in 2020 the proportion was about one third.
Still, traditional fundraising venues, including synagogues, have proved during the current crisis to still be effective at generating donations. “People are looking for guidance during this time. Rabbi Cosgrove is so amazing at providing that, so when he speaks and when he asks, people respond,” said Meredith Sotoloff, another Upper East Side mom who donated to UJA at Park Avenue’s behest as well as donating to other Israel causes on her own.
Within New York City, synagogues have taken a wide range of approaches to helping members give to Israel.
Some are pushing their members to give directly to UJA’s Israel Emergency Fund, even setting up dedicated links so their congregants’ giving can be tracked.
As the news emerged about the attack on the morning of Oct. 7, which was both Shabbat and the first of a two-day holiday in the Diaspora, Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper East Side, started to lay the groundwork for giving right away — even though collecting money would violate traditional Jewish law.
“That morning, we had donors raise their hands during services and pledge to give,” said Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. After continuing the campaign over email throughout the week, Steinmetz said KJ members had donated more than $7 million to the UJA Israel Emergency Fund.
Members at the Reform Central Synagogue have contributed over $15 million directly to UJA’s Israel Emergency Fund, Senior Rabbi Angela Buchdahl told the New York Jewish Week. She added that the congregation has its own, separate Israel Emergency Fund, which has raised over $400,000 and will be distributed to organizations in Israel to help the victims of the terror attack.
Many synagogues are offering their congregants a wide array of options, or collecting funds themselves to distribute directly to needy recipients in Israel without necessarily going through the middleman of UJA.
At Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side, for example, an emergency relief fund for Israel has raised “tens of thousands” of dollars, the entirety of which are going to verified causes to support Israel, according to executive director Tamar Fix.
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation, has established its own humanitarian relief fund that has raised nearly $100,000 to support relief efforts in Israel.
And Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side, for example, has raised $300,000 that it is distributing to different aid organizations, according to a spokesperson. It also purchased an ambulance for the American Friends of Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, and is donating funds to repair the children’s medical center at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, which was bombed early in the war.
“As American Jews whose lives have planted us outside of Israel, we may not be able physically to stand beside our brothers and sisters there, but we are not without responsibilities,” said Senior Rabbi Joshua Davidson. “One is to make certain Israel has everything it needs right now to care for and protect its people. And the second is to speak clearly in defense of Israel’s right to protect its people.”
Many synagogues are working to ensure that their members know how to donate their time and energy in addition to their money.
Temple Emanu-El has mobilized congregants to purchase and pack medical and first-aid supplies that are needed in Israel. A synagogue press release offered a long list of specialized supplies that were dropped off in the building’s lobby.
B’nai Jeshurun, a nondenominational synagogue on the Upper West Side, is conducting letter-writing initiatives to Israeli soldiers and children and collecting donations of toiletries, toys and clothes for Israeli families who have been displaced from their homes in the south. It has also curated a list of vetted charities, including but not limited to UJA’s emergency fund.
The congregation’s senior rabbi, José Rolando Matalon, told the New York Jewish Week via email that the wide array of giving options was intentional.
“Rather than duplicating the many fundraising efforts already in place,” he wrote, “we have aggregated specific funds and initiatives that align with our community’s values to help amplify those opportunities to our members looking to give.”
At UJA, Medin told the New York Jewish Week that, of the millions raised, more than $29 million has already gone out in grants to 74 different organizations on the ground in Israel.
He added that historically, the UJA has primarily raised its funds from the New York Jewish community exclusively. But as companies like Fox and Paramount publicize UJA as a place to donate, contributions have been coming in from across the country and the globe.
“We have dozens of partners on the ground in Israel that are doing the work of social services, trauma relief, relocation of people affected by the terror, direct cash assistance to victims of terror,” Medin said. “It’s extraordinarily rewarding to see the incredible generosity of the Jewish community at this critical time.”