AFMDA – kindness is in the blood

American Friends of Magen David Adom carries on a long tradition of support for this Israeli first aid organization; meet its new CEO.

November 27, 2010 23:33
ARNOLD GERSON: The old way of raising money by env

Gerson 311. (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)

War and terror are “good for the business” of fundraising for Israel, but Arnold Gerson – the South African-born new CEO of American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) – prefers that the blood inferred by the organization’s name be used for operations and healing rather than for treating wounded.

The 70-year-old New York-based organization – one of 17 around the world that supports the activities of 80- year-old Israeli first aid, blood supply and ambulance organization – collects between $20 million and $30 million a year, more than all the others combined.

When there is a crisis in Israel, people pay special attention to how much Magen David Adom (MDA) does, says Gerson. “The needs are much more visible then. I remember my own mother in Durban writing checks for Israel after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War,” he recalls in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. It is more visible then, but its staff and volunteers work to save lives and help people around the clock and every day of the year, continues Gerson, who has replaced Danny Allen as the top AFMDA executive.

Many older American Jews still know AFMDA by its previous name, the American Red Mogen Dovid, based on the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew.

Later, it became American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI). Numerous American non-Jews know about MDA, and about five to 10% of AFMDA’s financial supporters are gentiles, but the organization regards US Jews as the chief target of its activities, says Gerson, who worked for five years as executive vice president of AMIT, which supports a network of modern Orthodox Jewish schools in Israel.

In 1940, a concerned group of Americans realized the importance of MDA in what was then Palestine, and under the auspices of the B’nai Zion organization, American Red Mogen Dovid was officially chartered as an emergency lifesaving service.

ARMDI became affiliated with MDA and worked to upgrade its emergency medical and blood services.

The assistance it provided in the latter years of the Mandate and in the struggle with the Arabs in the late 1940s was crucial.

TODAY, MDA and its team of trained volunteer and professional medical responders depend on support from the US-tax-exempt AFMDA to provide for all of Israel’s pre-hospital emergency needs, including medical, disaster, ambulance and blood services. The MDA National Blood Services Center, built with AFMDA funds and located at Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan, supplies all the Israel Defense Forces’ blood requirements and 95% of the blood needs for the general population.

The US organization also provides development funds and a wide range of emergency medical supplies, equipment and ambulances, each of which costs between $100,000 and $125,000 when fully equipped.

The 800 MDA ambulances and mobile intensive care units – working out of 109 stations – which are on call around the clock log tens of millions of kilometers a year and treat some 550,000 patients annually.

Like most other Diaspora Jewish organizations, AFMDA is still reeling in the wake of the Bernard Madoff scandal. The organization, says Gershon, “is very conservative and never invested money with the now- imprisoned Madoff. “We invest in bonds and save money in Israel. But we were affected because many of our big donors lost money in Madoff’s scams.

Joseph and Phyllis Gurwin of Palm Beach, Florida, who with friends financed the $1 million renovation of the MDA station in Nahariya, lost significant sums,but decided not to renege on their pledge and challenged others from Palm Beach to give.

“They matched the Gurwin contribution,” says Gerson, who notes that Gurwin daughter Laura Flug adopted her father’s charitable activities after he died a year ago.

Earlier this month, Flug officially dedicated the first-responders station in the northern city only a few kilometers from the Lebanese border. Nahariya was one of Israel’s hardest-hit areas during the Second Lebanon War, and remains under constant threat of renewed violence – thus the importance of modernizing the old station, which had been built three decades ago and was in a terrible state. MDA staffers and volunteers saved many lives during the war as they rushed wounded soldiers and civilians to regional hospitals. Even after the war ended, tensions remained. “Another war with Hizballah is a very frightening reality, and we need to do everything we can to make sure Israel’s home front, and particularly the northern communities, have the proper tools,” Gerson said at the ceremony.

AFMDA used to be organized on the basis of chapters, but it was found more efficient to do so as four regions – East, West Coast, Florida and Chicago, says the CEO. “We have a database with 400,000 names of people who once donated to AFMDA. Half of them are current activists. Most contributions are small, from the symbolic $18 (hai) to $100.”

Fortunately, AFMDA has donors like the Gurwins and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has contributed a significant amount to renovate and expand Jerusalem’s vital MDA station at the western entrance to the capital. A few years ago, the mayor attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the building to be renamed for his father, the William H.

Bloomberg MDA Jerusalem Station. Although the event was followed by delays when a contractor sued, construction is progressing well, and the station is due to open in the spring. The Jerusalem station has not offered urgent outpatient medical care for a few decades, since the late Dr. David Applebaum launched the private chain of TEREM urgent care clinics. Most MDA stations now do not offer urgent care.

IN THE pre-Internet day, mailed envelopes with publicity material inside, videocassettes, DVDs and organizational lunches and dinners used to be a common way of raising money for MDA.

Gerson notes that AFMDA has moved to videoconferences an other electronic media such as its Web site (, Twitter, Facebook and email.

Like the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America and other American Jewish groups that seek longterm contributions, AFMDA also accepts money from supporters who establish a charitable gift annuity as a secure source of income that also supports MDA. As for festive meals, they remain a fundraising tool. And while in smaller cities, lunches and dinners weren’t always kosher, they all are today, says Gerson, who wears a crocheted kippa. But he still feels that “the best way to sell something is face to face.”

The new CEO earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, English and Jewish studies from Natal University in South Africa. Gerson speaks good Hebrew and is familiar with Israeli life, as he lived here for five years, during which he earned a master’s degree in social and industrial psychology from Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan. In fact, he met his American-born wife Esther on campus. After the Gersons’ graduation from BIU, they moved to NY, and he participated in a post-master’s program at Columbia University’s Institute for Not-for-Profit Management. They have three daughters aged 22 to 15, and two are already considering aliya.

Before he worked for AMIT, Gerson served in a variety of senior staff positions with the UJAFederation of New York for 13 years.

Within weeks of his AFMDA appointment, Gerson came to Israel, where he met with MDA’s directorgeneral Eli Bin and other officials. He is aware that the organization has been quite troubled in recent years. Bin has in particular been severely criticized by the media, especially the Yisrael Hayom daily, and longtime spokesman Yerucham Mendola has been indicted after nearly a year’s suspension for allegedly forging a police document and using it when stopped by a patrol car.

“I’m not happy about negative press on MDA in Israel in recent years,” he says tersely. “I hope everybody will be exonerated.” The news media also periodically report on conflict between MDA and United Hatzalah (UH), an MDA offshoot of mostly Orthodox Jewish men based within meters of MDA’s Jerusalem station. Unlike MDA, which is supervised by the Health Ministry and required to charge for all services, UH runs totally on volunteer power and donated funds and equipment and specializes in ambucycles that are often able to get to the site of an accident or to a sick person before an MDA ambulance. After giving first aid, UH volunteers are often joined by MDA medics and paramedics who assist or take over and take the patient to the nearest hospital.

WHILE THERE is little or no conflict in the field, UH complains that MDA – “worried about the competition” – has tried to disconnect its volunteers and office from MDA alerts and threatens to dismiss MDA staffers who are also involved in UH. Gerson accepts the suggestion that on his next visit he will meet UH chief Eli Beer to discuss the friction between the organizations. “I know about United Hatzalah; MDA trains them. I am aware of the bad publicity. It will be a challenge to sort things out. I can’t comment on it further without studying the issue.”

As for the future of American Jewry, Gerson believes that the number of unaffiliated Jews will decline as intermarriage and assimilation get even worse. He would like to introduce AFDMA to the growing haredi and modern Orthodox communities, which so far are hardly involved in supporting MDA. “I think that at least for the next 25 years, AFDMA will have supporters. The next generation of American Jewry will determine our future,” says Gerson. “Being involved in Jewish organizations helps American Jews connect. The formative years of children and teens are critical. If they get a good Jewish education and spend a year in Israel – or at least the short Birthright visit – they can remain committed even if they stay in the US.”

He states that AFMDA “follows every dollar donated” to ensure that it goes to MDA projects in Israel. “All the money is very well tracked. The donors are confident that it will reach its destination.” Asked about proposed future projects, the AFMDA CEO notes that the Tel Hashomer blood bank is working at maximum capacity.

“There is talk about either expanding the existing facility or building a whole new and more modern one to meet Israel’s blood needs for the next generation or two. I think a new one would be better, but it would cost as much as $50 million.”

At present, the blood bank has enough blood, but during holidays and vacations, the amount always dips.

AFMDA also encourages tourists to Israel to leave part of themselves – a pint of blood – behind. Such campaigns are organized by its representative, Jonathan Feldstein.

Last year, 2,000 tourists did so.

AFMDA is also building new stations, such as in Holon and Mitzpe Ramon, while others are being renovated. The 16 other Friends organizations focus on building in other locations, with MDA management deciding where it needs new or improved facilities. The drop in the value of the dollar makes development difficult, as AFMDA raises money in US currency, while MDA spends the money for development in shekels.

Ambulances, whose donors are prominently named in red paint, do not live forever. “Our donors are aware of the fact that the vehicles have lifespans, and there is no commitment that once they are disposed of, the dedications will be put on something else,” says Gerson. “They are not buildings. But we may establish a wall of plaques to honor those who donated ambulances that are no longer on the road.”

The commitment to MDA and Israel often passes from one generation to another, he concludes.

“Many adult children want to continue their parents’ tradition. A donor to the blood bank learned from his father, who donated to the previous blood bank. Some contributes grew up with the dinner conversation focusing on Israel and help to MDA. This can build their passion.”

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