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Across the Former Soviet Union Some Local Jewish Groups Wary As Charity for Israel Opens in Russia

April 3, 2003
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The main group that raises money for Israel in countries outside the United States is now operating in Russia.

The move means that Keren Hayesod is functioning in the largest Eastern European country.

“We see today the former Soviet Union as any other country in the world,” said Gadi Dror, executive adviser to Keren Hayesod’s chairman. “So we made a strategic decision to start working this year in the FSU.”

But the Russian Jewish Congress, one of Russia’s leading Jewish groups, is opposing Keren Hayesod’s efforts, saying that it could undermine its own fund-raising work.

For its part, Keren Hayesod also plans to start campaigns in Ukraine and Moldova, and to begin activities in other former Soviet republics within the next five years, Dror said.

Keren Hayesod, which raised $130 million worldwide last year, is expected to announce the official launch of its fund-raising campaign in Russia later this year or next.

It had been originally slated for this spring, but has been put off due to the current international situation and the difficulty of finding a top luminary to launch its campaign.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities last month granted Keren Hayesod an official license, enabling the fund to open its Moscow branch.

On a recent day, Orit Katzov, Keren Hayesod’s Moscow director, was talking loudly in her brand new office, trying to be heard over the noise of drilling, while workers were still fixing a door and a videophone system in the next room.

“We came here to reach out to every Jew, so each and every Jews feels connected to the land of Israel,” Katzov said.

“But the goal is not only to bring this connection in spirit, it’s about enabling people to make a contribution to Israel that will be used toward things practical.”

Keren Hayesod, which aids Israel through the work of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is also heavily involved in humanitarian projects in the Jewish state, providing assistance to hospitals, fire-fighting units and community centers for underprivileged citizens.

Keren Hayesod lists tens of thousands of donors across the globe, though officials admit that the top 10 percent of its donor base provides 90 percent of the funds raised.

Officials with the fund say they believe it is possible to raise funds in this part of the world for Israeli causes because of economic improvements in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

To help achieve its goals, the fund plans to start courting members of the Russian Jewish business elite through exclusive events and advertisements in the mainstream business media.

“We believe that Jewish leaders in the former Soviet Union are no different than the leaders in New York, London or any other major community, and businessmen here are no less capable than other international businesspeople” of getting involved in international Jewish causes, Dror said.

Jewish leaders here generally believe that the fund has come to Russia due to the support of Leonid Nevzlin, a leading Russian Jewish philanthropist and politician.

Nevzlin, an oil executive and former president of the Russian Jewish Congress who currently is a member of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, is one of the country’s richest citizens.

He was not available for comment.

Dror noted that his organization has not set any financial target for its initial operations in the former Soviet Union.

“It’s too early to evaluate what can be raised here, and at this stage it’s not even so important,” he said.

The fund’s officials say they want the entire Russian Jewish community to benefit from the new operation. Plans are under way to bring the organization’s experience in Jewish education and young leadership training to Russian communities.

But not everyone in the community is welcoming the organization’s presence here.

Leaders of the RJC called last year on its donors not to support Keren Hayesod’s campaign, but to support projects in Israel directly.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, the group’s president, told JTA he fears that funds raised domestically “will be washed out” by Keren Hayesod and other “international political intermediaries.”

He said the million-strong Russian-speaking community in Israel is setting a “special tone to our relations to Israel” and the “Western European and Latin American model of helping Israel through some third parties is not acceptable to us.”

Another Jewish umbrella group that is heavily involved in domestic fund raising cautiously welcomed Keren Hayesod entrance into the Russian Jewish arena.

But Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis and leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, said the Russian Jewish poor should be helped first.

“I think most Russian businesspeople will first think of Jews in Russia when they want to give a donation,” he said. “There are others who will think otherwise — because of the difficult situation in Israel, or because of their love for Israel — but I think Israel is always going to be in the second place for those who give to charities here.”

Lazar said it is too early to compare Russian Jews with more established communities in their ability to donate to Israeli causes.

“Most other countries don’t have this situation when dozens of thousands of Jews are in need of medications, food.”

But Dror argues that those Russian charities that are afraid their donor base would shrink once Keren Hayesod launches its operations in Russia have nothing to worry about.

“The reality is always different. This will increase substantially the number of people who are involved in the community,” he said. “That’s the lesson we learn in every country.”

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