‘To understand how the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) have acted when it comes to humanitarian aid to Ukraine, it is important to remember that the basis for this is our investment over the years in a global rescue and support system for Jews around the world – something that has been our top priority for decades,” says Eric Fingerhut, president of the JFNA.
The Jerusalem Post Group presented a special award to JFNA at the recent Jerusalem Post Conference in London. The award recognized their leadership in global mobilization on behalf of the Jews of Ukraine, from providing support to refugees and transferring them to a place of refuge, to realizing the Zionist vision of aliyah to Israel. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, 146 Jewish federations in North America have raised more than $50 million, providing support wherever it has been needed.
“Each year, the Jewish federations in North America raise money and a significant portion of it goes to a group effort to ensure there is a network of organizations around the world that protects and supports Jews wherever they are,” says Fingerhut, explaining that two of the most significant organizations in this space are the Jewish Agency, which has offices and professionals in many countries that support the Jewish communities and assist in aliyah; and the Joint Distribution Committee, which provides humanitarian assistance, medicines and assistance to elderly and needy people worldwide.
“Because of the support we provide every year, this strong infrastructure is capable of responding to a major crisis like what is happening in Ukraine,” he adds. “When the fighting broke out, those organizations were already on the ground with professional staff and had the resources and strong local relationships. They have contacts, they know what the leaders in the Jewish communities need, and of course, in the case of the Jewish Agency, they can bring them to Israel and, in any case, help and support refugees in the border countries to which they have fled.
“In the first five weeks of the war, our Jewish federations raised $50 million beyond our regular annual support. When an incident like this breaks out, it requires additional costs beyond the assistance we give at normal times, whether it’s for buses, food, housing and temporary shelter. We provided the donations to the Jewish Agency and the JDC, and 60 of our communities sent representatives to the area to understand what was happening on the ground.”
“We have Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking volunteers who are there helping professionals, and we are now starting to plan how to address the long-term needs of this war,” he notes, “whether it will be in providing assistance to Ukrainian refugees, to Russian Jews who may need help, or to Jews who will want to make aliyah or move to the US.“All these activities will require additional funds, and we will have to seek the support of our generous donors – but that’s why we have a permanent network of Jewish federations in 146 communities in North America, made up of professional and dedicated people who know their communities and know how to communicate their needs.”
Living in security
Fingerhut, who recently visited Israel, was here during the week when 11 people were killed in terrorist attacks across the country. He explains that the second issue now at the top of the organization’s priorities, apart from Ukraine, is the issue of the physical security of North America’s Jewish communities.
“This is an issue that Israelis understand very well. You know how to prevent these attacks and how to react when they happen,” he notes. “In America, we are in the process of building a safety net. We are living in the most challenging years in US history when it comes to violence and attacks against Jews.“These security challenges received greater emphasis three-and-a-half years ago, in the terrorist attack at the Tree of Life Community Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018. Since then, there have been attacks on synagogues throughout the country, and against Jewish-owned restaurants and businesses in California, Boston and New York.
Additionally, there was the hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue.“Under the leadership of the Jewish federations in all of the communities, we have already launched a security initiative to plan security arrangements for all Jewish institutions, such as synagogues. We spend $30 million a year on security and that is not enough. Every community must be covered and even those with existing security arrangements need to strengthen them.”
During the past three years, the organization has operated the LiveSecure campaign, in which, in the first phase, $62 million was raised to cover the security of every Jewish facility in North America.“The fund will be used to support communications to emergency services, and each community will also use the grants to raise additional funds at the local level in order to develop security arrangements in each community,” he says.
“We want to build a security umbrella that will cover every community in North America – and that’s an urgent need for us because violence can break out anywhere,” he elaborates. “There has been an increase in antisemitic statements and hatred of Jews spread on social media in recent years. This reinforces the threat to us, and all Jewish federations must work collaboratively because we will not be able to meet this challenge alone.”
At the same time, the JFNA advises governments on behalf of Jewish communities and has been working with the US Congress and President Joe Biden to promote a grant program that will pay for the installation of cameras, secure doors and fences in Jewish institutions. Congress has already raised the amount of aid to $250 million a year and the president has proposed an additional increase up to $360 million.
“Anti-Zionist activity against Israel and hatred of Jews is unfortunately spreading in colleges and political organizations in North America, largely because of hate speech on social media,” Fingerhut emphasizes. “We have seen an increase in political extremists in the US among the right and the left in recent years. We are fighting this on all fronts. We are active in education and within the community and are building relationships with other organizations and religions. The goal is to educate people about what is happening and the challenges that lie ahead.”
Carolyn Gitlin, chairwoman of the National Women’s Philanthropy Board of the Jewish Federations of North America, recently returned from a working visit to Ukraine as part of the assistance the organization has been providing during the war.
“The trip was very emotional,” recalls Gitlin, “to stand on the border and see there are a majority of women and children who are crossing the border. We look them in the eye and notice despair, fear and also hope. I know I am no different from these women, and it’s frightening to think that in a different reality, it could be me who is the one crossing the border, with a small backpack and a child by my side. It’s a sad moment that I will never forget.
“One of the women I met told me she hid under the building stairs for 17 days because of the bombings. She told me that she was a banker and now she was left with nothing. It’s heartbreaking.”
Gitlin is a longtime leader in her local federation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford in Connecticut, and has chaired its board since 2019. In addition, she has served on the board of the Max Cares Foundation since 2015, and is a former board member of the Aurora Women and Girls Foundation and the Tumble Brook Country Club. She is also a former board member and president of the Kingswood Oxford School Parents Association.
“As a woman and leader in my community, it was important for me to give back and contribute. I know that if I did not have the strong Jewish community in which I grew up, I would not be the woman I am today. I feel that it is my responsibility to make sure that there is a strong and supportive community for young Jewish people.”
Gitlin oversees the philanthropic women in the Jewish Federation system in North America and her role is not only to empower the women of the communities, but also to inspire them to complete the important tasks that need to be accomplished. The women of the North American communities have raised more than $200 million each year.“We have formed a board consisting of 150 women in North America, representing 70 communities from the 146 Jewish federations in North America, and they serve as ambassadors within their community. Beyond that, there are
300 Jewish communities across the US and Canada, and some of our activities include fundraising for the annual campaign, which is distributed to various agencies and programs in the community.”“In recent years, women have been the ones making most philanthropic decisions in the home,” she stresses.
“Women today have more personal wealth than ever before. This is an amazing change, and I have the privilege of leading the women in the Jewish communities in North America and sharing this journey with them, inspiring them, and communicating how this money can strengthen and benefit our communities.
“Women think mainly with their hearts. When you speak with them about raising money for security initiatives in the community, they immediately think about the grandchildren. They want the daycare centers to be safe and, of course, maintain security in the synagogues. Women always think about the community. I am not saying that men do not think and feel this way, but this does inspire women.”
“Security in the communities is JFNA’s top priority and, of course, the crisis in Ukraine and fundraising for the humanitarian crisis there,” says Gitlin. “Beyond that, we raise funds for every social service you can imagine – from helping Holocaust survivors to running daycare centers and helping those in need. Women help raise funds for all the important initiatives that are the base of the Jewish community infrastructure.
“I must point out that in the past two years, against the background of the coronavirus crisis and, of course, Ukraine, there has been an increase in the public’s desire to give and help.
“The crisis has actually brought out the best in people and it is important to emphasize that we are helping everyone who needs it. Assistance in Ukraine is provided to everyone, not only those who are Jewish.
“As the Chief Rabbi of Poland told us during the visit, we are all children of God, not only Jews, and we must help everyone.”
This article was written in cooperation with the JFNA.Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.