Chronicle Series/Middle East Crisis Raises Tricky Fund-Raising Questions

Philanthropy.com
From the issue dated April 18, 2002
A CHIEF EXECUTIVE’S VIEW

Middle East Crisis Raises Tricky Fund-Raising Questions
By Yosef I. Abramowitz

A month ago, the head of an important foundation gave me an oral commitment to support the charity I run, Jewish Family & Life. Our organization uses Web sites, magazines, and other media to stimulate young people and others to weave Jewish culture, traditions, and values into daily life.

But when I spoke to this executive earlier this month, all he could do was talk about the heartbreaking violence in Israel — and say he needed to delay our next meeting.

I, too, am devastated by the suicide bombings and deaths, and I believe passionately that philanthropy can play a role in advancing peace and security for Israel and the people of the Middle East. I have served in the Israel Defense Forces and worked with Palestinian prisoners. I also led efforts by Jewish students to combat anti-Israel propaganda on campuses. I’ve helped take thousands of young people on trips to Israel. And I’ve organized demonstrations for a variety of Jewish causes around the world.

Yet as the conflict in the Middle East worsens, I find myself wrestling with what role I can play as head of a Jewish charity. As my organization’s chief executive officer and primary fund raiser, I need to keep my charity’s message to donors timely and relevant, not come across as opportunistic. It’s a challenge made more difficult by my experience after September 11.

The mistake I made on September 11 is that I let the news, as well as my own emotions and good intentions, overtake our nonprofit group’s mandate. As Jewish organizations across the country were understandably evacuating their offices, our youthful team decided to stay put and produce a new Web site, JewzNewz.com, to serve as an online crisis information center for Jewish people. Amazingly, it went live at 5 p.m. on September 11 and remains online.

Jewish Family & Life’s ability to assemble high-quality content in such a short time made me want to do more, although we had no money earmarked for emergency projects. So, as other staff members culled news and advice from crisis counselors, I called on a couple of our donors seeking support for the project.

My good intentions backfired. My requests came across as ill-timed and self-serving; I felt terrible, cheapened by the experience. In fact, one important donor whom I’d called ended up not making an end-of-year gift, probably because of the plea I’d made on September 11.

That experience, combined with a very clear message from my board to focus on our charity’s core products and services, convinces me that, while this Middle East crisis cries out for a wide range of responses, it would be very difficult for our organization to undertake any of them, at least without an earmarked grant to pay for exploring a new direction.

This is not to say my charity will ignore the situation in Israel entirely. For example, next month’s issue of Sh’ma, an intellectual journal we publish, will take an in-depth look at the issue, and six other projects are working on Israel-related programming.

There is much more we could, and perhaps should, do as a natural part of our work. But we probably won’t, because we need to raise money for our primary efforts that are not directly tied to Israel. And that is OK. I now realize the value in developing a long-term view of my organization’s future.

Whether this is the rationalization of an activist CEO more constrained by his board than in the past or the insights of a maturing organizational leader who, at age 37, is learning the value of focus, I’m not sure.

I certainly see the wisdom in sticking to a clearly defined mission. My activist side, however, worries that the voices of the young people who participate in groups like ours may not be reflected in the messages being sent by more established organizations, which are primarily supported by older donors. The dilemma — wanting to expand one’s reach while needing to keep existing programs running — is one many new charities face as they struggle to raise enough money to survive, nevermind grow.

In any case, I continue to believe that the work Jewish Family & Life and others are doing in North America has a profound but longer-term impact on the situation in Israel. We engage and encourage young Jews who are not actively involved in Jewish organizations to step forward and participate in Jewish affairs, including lobbying for Israel. By rejuvenating the Jewish people in North America, we provide what my wife, a rabbi, calls “a spiritual backpack” for every Jewish child.

We all learned from September 11 and the recent suicide bombings in Israel that we cannot control what highly motivated bad people will do. But we can decide now to give our children the skills and spiritual resources to deal with tragedy, to cope with loss, and to live their lives fully even with a cloud of instability and danger in the air. The rise in attendance at religious services of all faiths following September 11 shows the universal interest among Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others in building value-based communities.

A friend of mine in Jerusalem recently sent me an e-mail reminding me that the greatest threat to Israel in the current crisis is not military, but psychological and spiritual. The young people from Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades and Hamas who are blowing themselves up in Israeli civilian centers do not believe that their bombs will weaken Israel militarily. But the morale of the Israeli population, a key strategic asset, is at an all-time low. It has been chipped away by each terrorist attack. It has also been undermined for decades by the educational systems in Israel that failed to teach the next generation of Israelis why it is important to be Jewish and to have a Jewish state.

America’s Jews have found a multiplicity of innovative ways to fuse a modern, western lifestyle with Jewish values and living. Israel’s best minds have been distracted from undertaking that monumental educational and social challenge because they have been creating and defending a state. The ability to educate the next generation of Jews, in either Israel or North America, with a sense of Jewish vision and purpose is the best defense against not only assimilation but also terror.

United Jewish Communities, the umbrella for the local fund-raising federations, and others will raise record amounts of money, as they should, for Israel, for victims of terror, and for important social services in the Jewish state. But most of that money is going to come from older and longtime donors. The next generation of American Jews, as transfixed as they are right now by the terrible situation, will soon resume their everyday lives, either because the crisis will calm down or because of bad-news fatigue.

Yet one day there will be peace, or at least another peaceful period like we experienced in the 1990s. The question is, given the negative demographic forces that are weakening the American Jewish community, will there be enough Jews left who care?

That’s our job, and I guess part of my charity’s not-yet-written case statement. So perhaps, in the end, my work is more connected to the Israel crisis than I thought.

Yosef I. Abramowitz is chief executive officer of Jewish Family & Life, a charity in Newton, Mass., that uses the Internet, magazines, and books to encourage Jews of all ages to make the religion’s values and culture a part of their daily lives. He can be reached at ceo@jflmedia.com

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