“The effect of corona is very direct and simple,” said Shari Mendes, the founder and director of the Israel Lemonade Fund, an NGO that helps breast cancer survivors. “The number of applications we have received since corona has gone up by 73%. It didn’t happen immediately, but now there is a cumulative effect.”
The fund helps needy breast cancer patients with expenses not directly covered by Israeli national health insurance, including taxi rides to treatment, babysitting and food vouchers.
The pandemic has increased the need, as many of those who receive the services of the organization are from the lower socioeconomic strata. Many work in service industries, including cleaning, eldercare or home healthcare, and have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
“People are finding themselves in a bleak situation and then breast cancer hits,” Mendes said. “We are seeing a lot of people who were already in debt and then they get sick. People who are getting chemotherapy are afraid to get on a bus during the pandemic, so they take a taxi.”
Many of the fund’s clients are nursing a baby, or even two in some large families, she said. They are unable to keep nursing during their treatment, meaning they also need to buy baby formula, which is expensive. She said the organization has hired two part-time students to handle the increased volume of applications.
While the need has increased, so have donations, she said.
“The Lemonade Fund is like the miracle of Hanukkah,” she said. “We have never had to say no to a person because of lack of money. Our donors are good people. We certainly don’t have any extra, but, baruch Hashem, we have enough to help, and I’m very moved by that.”
The Lemonade Fund is one of many NGOs that told The Jerusalem Post that the pandemic has severely cut into their fundraising efforts which keep them running.
Other charities said that, because of the pandemic, it has been impossible to hold fundraising activities. Yohanan Ben David is a volunteer for Melabev, an organization that has day centers and provides services for adults with dementia. Before the pandemic, he organized several hikes a year, including an overnight hike. Participants raise money from friends and family and are asked to raise NIS 3,600 per hike. Each overnight hike raises about NIS 100,000, he said. In the past two years, they have had only one hike, but he has already scheduled one for late March.
Yael Lanzman, the director of resource development at Melabev, said that COVID is more dangerous for elderly patients, who are also more likely to have dementia. She said Melabev elderly were locked down from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 until June of the same year. Melabev’s day centers are under the auspices of the Welfare Ministry, and they were able to reopen.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought it would only be a few months and then we would be done with it,” she said. “But as it continued, our donors were helpful, and we owe them a lot. There are people who have been loyal to us for years.”
Nonprofits in Israel said the pandemic has changed the way Israelis donate.
While Israelis will give money or other aid to relatives or even friends who are suffering from the pandemic, there is not an institutional culture of donating to charity the way there is in the US, said Prof. Renana Peres, the vice dean for external affairs of the Hebrew University Business School.
“All over the world there is a reverse correlation between the level of services the government is providing to people giving charity,” she said. “Here the culture is smaller, more tribal and more local.”
She said Israelis feel that they already pay high taxes and spend years serving in the army, so many have a sense that they have already contributed to society.
“In the beginning [of the pandemic] there were more people who needed help – those who were unemployed, or under stress and needed mental health services,” she said. “In addition, many of the elderly who went to day programs that were canceled because of the pandemic were even lonelier than usual. And donations were shrinking because attention went elsewhere.”
Many food aid nonprofits no longer had their traditional sources of food for donation, meaning leftover food from wedding halls and restaurants that were donated to the needy.
Mickey Gitzin, the executive director of the New Israel Fund in Israel, which gives grants to more than 70 organizations, said that at the beginning of the pandemic donations completely stopped.
“I’ll never forget it – it was March 13, 2020,” he said. “People didn’t know how to react. We had to make some tough decisions immediately, and we didn’t know what the long-term effect would be.”
But, he said, as the pandemic continued, the situation began to improve. Israelis working in hi-tech or finance stepped up their donations, realizing that the need had increased.
At the same time, overseas donors faced more of a challenge as the dollar-shekel rate continued to decline. While a few years ago a dollar was worth almost NIS 4, today it is just over NIS 3, and shows little sign of changing. In large sums of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, that made a big difference.
He said NGOs had to adjust their budgets and realize that the same donation would buy fewer goods and services in Israel. The donation crisis also came amid tensions between some American Jews and Israel over issues of religious pluralism and actions toward the Palestinians.
“I am also a Reform rabbi, so I’ve known this issue for many years,” said Peres. “Also, American Jews have not been able to come to Israel for two years, because of the pandemic. They haven’t come for bar mitzvahs or on Birthright.”
While donations from American Jews may be down, corporate donations inside Israel are up. Many hi-tech companies have programs in which employee donations are matched by the company.
Gitzin said that US donors want to see that Israelis are giving as well, before they commit to a donation.
Peres said that until now Israelis have been willing to volunteer and donate their time, but have not given money the way that US Jews have. At the same time, social solidarity in Israel remains high, and newspapers are filled with stories of strangers helping each other. Many supermarkets collect food for the needy, and secondhand clothing shops have more business than ever.
The pandemic has increased the income gap between rich and poor Israelis, but has also increased Israelis’ willingness to donate money as well as time. Those working in the NGO sector said that may be the silver lining of corona.