August 20, 2019

Israel Donations Stimulate — and Don’t Hurt — Local Fundraising

Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon has left the Jewish state spiritually and financially drained. The overall cost of the conflict, including the amount spent on the war and business losses in northern Israel, exceeds $7 billion, according to The Israel Project, a nonprofit, pro-Israeli advocacy group.

Responding to Israel’s plight, American Jews have sent tens of millions of dollars to the beleaguered country, much of it through Jewish charities, including Jewish federations across the country. Given that Israel’s needs remain vast, undoubtedly the upcoming High Holiday season will see rabbis across the Southland encouraging congregants to open their hearts — and their pocketbooks — to the Jewish homeland.

But will Israel’s needs trump those of local synagogues and Jewish nonprofits? Will the charitable dollars flowing to Israel during the giving season mean less support for maintenance of Southland temples and for the social services that Jews traditionally support, such as Jewish day schools or food and psychological counseling for the needy?

An informal survey of rabbis and agency executives suggests that they remain optimistic that donors this year will not hold back. They will find a way to help both the Holy Land and causes closer to home.

For synagogues, the stakes appear especially high. That’s because fundraising during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can generate the largest portion of a year’s total fundraising. With a large, semicaptive audience, it is not uncommon for rabbis or temple presidents to make three or four appeals during holiday services. The season’s emphasis on teshuvah (repentance); tefillah (prayer); and tzedekah (righteous) giving, helps Jews understand the importance of contributing and puts them in the right frame of mind to do so, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which has 285 members.

Rabbi David Eliezre of the Chabad synagogue, Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen in Orange County, feels confident that the act of giving only begets more generosity.

“People with a charitable heart will reach a little deeper in their pockets this year,” he said.

Similarly, Rabbi Don Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, said he is hopeful his synagogue will raise as much for its own operations this year as last. In a reflection of the appeal’s importance, which accounts for more than 50 percent of Temple Judea’s annual fundraising, Goor will make the pitch himself at services, while another rabbi will make an appeal for Israel. Goor said that his sermon will address how centrifugal forces, including America’s rugged individualism, have pulled the Jewish community to “the outside, while the synagogue pulls Jews back to the core of Judaism.”

Goor said he has little concern that charitable giving to Israel will dilute the synagogue campaign. Last year, he said, congregants gave generously to victims of Hurricane Katrina but still managed to keep up their temple giving.

University Synagogue in Brentwood, with 60 full- and part-time employees and a planned renovation, relies on holiday fundraising for a “significant” portion of its operating budget, said senior Rabbi Morley Feinstein. That’s why its president will make a pitch for synagogue donations on Rosh Hashanah, while a separate appeal for Israel will be made on Yom Kippur.

Feinstein said he is hopeful that temple members will come through, even though they have already contributed tens of thousands of dollars to various Israel emergency campaigns.

“Our people are known as compassionate, and our children are compassionate,” Feinstein said. “Our compassion has to enter our checkbooks so that we help those in need.”

Like synagogues, local Jewish philanthropies often build fundraising campaigns around the High Holidays, although to a lesser extent. The picture here seems a bit murkier.

Because Jews “get that warm, fuzzy feeling of Judaism” during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) steps up its fundraising in the last three months of the year, said Mark Meltzer, the organization’s executive director. Typically, the nonprofit takes in about one-third of its donations from October through December, he said.

However, Meltzer worries that charitable dollars now earmarked for Israel could impact JFLA fundraising and cause the nonprofit to miss its 2006 targets. If that happens, he said, Free Loan would have less money available for interest-free loans for university students or Jewish couples seeking fertility treatments or Jewish campers.

“For the donor who wants to make an impact both locally and internationally, it’s going to stretch their pocketbook,” Meltzer said.

To coincide with the High Holidays, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger recently kicked off its campaign “Corners of Our Fields,” a reference to the biblical practice of leaving corners of a field untouched for the poor to harvest. For a variety of reasons, though, Mazon can’t predict how this year’s holiday drive will fare, said Jeremy Deutchman, Mazon’s director of communications and development. Deutchman said at least two rabbis he tried to enlist to talk up Mazon told him they plan instead to focus their holiday sermons on Israel this year.

Mazon funds food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens locally, as well as nationally and internationally. The nonprofit, Deutchman said, has seen demand for its contributions jump in recent years because of the squeeze on America’s middle class.

By contrast, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has seen an increase in contributions, including from new donors in recent months, because the Jewish philanthropic organization set up one of the major Israel emergency campaigns, according to Craig Prizant, executive vice president of financial resource development. The Federation now has the chance to “convert” crisis-fund donors into regular givers, Prizant said. It hopes to do so by making first-timers aware of all the ways the organization supports the Jewish state — and then ask for a donation at a later date.

The success of the L.A. Federation’s Israel in Crisis fund, which has raised $15 million so far, appears to have had little or no impact on The Federation’s annual campaign, Prizant said. He projects this year’s campaign to hit $50 million, a 5 percent jump over last year.

There are those who would like to keep discussions of money out of the sacred days. At least one Southland rabbi, Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades, thinks Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should not be synonymous with fundraising. She said her temple makes, at most, a quiet solicitation during the High Holidays and holds its two major fundraising events at other times during the year.

“We try to keep the sanctity of the High Holidays without having it be so commercialized,” she said.