Israel Independence Day: Time for unity, solidarity - KH head

Sam Grundwerg served as director-general in Israel for the World Jewish Congress but now heads Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal.

 GRUNDWERG WELCOMES a plane carrying immigrants from Ukraine that landed in Israel just before Passover. (photo credit: Shlomo Amsalem)
GRUNDWERG WELCOMES a plane carrying immigrants from Ukraine that landed in Israel just before Passover.
(photo credit: Shlomo Amsalem)

If you ask the World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal (UIA), Sam Grundwerg how he feels about Israel’s 75th Independence Day, he’ll tell you he’s optimistic and eager to see what the future will hold. 

Grundwerg, a native of Florida, made aliyah as a lone soldier in 1990. Prior to this role he served as Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles. Before this, Grundwerg served as director-general in Israel for the World Jewish Congress, an international organization representing Jewish communities in over 100 countries to governments, parliaments and other international organizations. He leads KH-UIA together with Steven Lowy AM, chairman of its World Board of Trustees. I conducted an interview with Grundwerg recently at his Efrat home.

The last year has been a very eventful year: 75,000 immigrants from around the world, mainly from the Former Soviet Union as result of the war in Ukraine. Keren Hayesod was very instrumental in assisting this actions of the Jewish Agency and others.

Absolutely. I think it was kind of a defining moment in a way that in case anybody started to question, is it legitimate for people to ask, after 75 years of the establishment of the State of Israel, why does Israel still need these national institutions? Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency, that had been around for more than 75 years. Keren Hayesod [KH] for instance has been around for 103 years, since 1920 and the agency since 1929. I think that what we witnessed in the last year was a reminder of why we’re as relevant as ever and as needed as ever because we were able to mobilize very quickly the Jewish Agency being the operational arm, if you will. And KH, quickly mobilized 60 emergency campaigns in 45 countries. For those of us that need to be reminded, it emphasizes we’re uniquely positioned as a national institution. We were able to mobilize quickly to raise these funds. But inside Israel, we were working with the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Aliyah, and the Prime Minister’s Office. Most people don’t know but there’s actually something called the Aliyah Cabinet. It’s amazing that when there’s an emergency like this, the cabinet is mobilized and the members of it aren’t just ministers but I had the privilege to sit around that table with government ministers, because that shows you we are an integral part. We raised over $22 million for Ukraine and aliyah from the Former Soviet Union [FSU].

How much did KH raise in general in 2022? For all of its projects?

We were able to raise above and beyond the regular year because of Ukraine. In 2022 KH raised a total of just north of $180 million, $22 of it was for Ukraine. In addition, a total of $56 million for the Jewish Agency, because that’s our primary beneficiary and strategic partner. But we do a lot beyond as well because we’re considered in our campaigns around the world, as being the go-to place for Israel.

 KEREN HAYESOD-United Israel Appeal World Chairman Sam Grundwerg. (credit: COURTESY KEREN HAYESOD) KEREN HAYESOD-United Israel Appeal World Chairman Sam Grundwerg. (credit: COURTESY KEREN HAYESOD)

Just for Israel, or beyond?

It’s almost exclusively Israel, but there’s also been a paradigm shift during the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve also helped the local communities, locally. We do that together with the Jewish Agency. At the height of the pandemic, when the current President Isaac Herzog was then my counterpart as the chairman of Jewish Agency, we put together a loan fund, under the agency, for Jewish communities. So you actually had Israel helping the diaspora. It was specifically set up to give non-interest loans for the Jewish institutions that were on the brink of financial failure because of the pandemic. 

In a way, the events that they’re running aren’t only fundraisers, but they’re also something that is a positive force in the Jewish community

“Absolutely. We have about 30 Shlichim [emissaries] around the world. In addition, at the headquarters in Jerusalem, we’re between 65 and 70 employees, while we run about 30 offices worldwide.”

How are you coping with the phenomenon of wealthy families establishing more and more family foundations instead of donating to legacy organizations such as yours?

You’re right. This is one of our challenges. Nowadays it’s easier to give directly, and there’s something that makes it more intimate if you will, to be able to give directly to a specific organization or cause. What makes us different is that we’re a national institution and it’s the collective and that’s what the whole infrastructure is, whether it’s under the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency or KH, so this thing coming together and sitting around that table and yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s increasingly difficult to convince the donors to give through our mechanism because they see it as this great big body and in their eyes less personal. And so that creates a chance for us to make the case of why supporting Israel is super important, but giving to the collective is also important. We saw that with the war in Ukraine, Jewish communities around the world were pulling their weight and giving to the collective, especially when you have something like an emergency situation and the mass wave of aliyah. So if those same communities are supporting Israel, but directly, not through us, that’s also fantastic. But we think that there’s a gap there, and so that’s a big challenge.”

A semi-new phenomena is that KH now also raises funds for Israel from Christians and Christian organizations. Can you please elaborate about that?

“I can’t take all the credit for this because it’s been the past 10 to 15 years, but definitely in the almost four and a half years in my position, I am proud to say that this type of fundraising has grown in strength. The lion’s share of the funds is still from Jewish communities but we’re dealing more and more with Christian friends of Israel. And we think it’s a great thing.

It’s a very sensitive time in Israel on the one hand, but also in relation with the Jewish world. There was also an issue of a local KH branch that was concerned about the fact that they felt you and the board of KH weren’t loud enough regarding the situation. What have you been doing to bridge the gap? 

So even though we’re a national institution, there is that officialness to it. We have always tried to be and continue to strive to be above politics with the work that we do, and the projects that we support. There is nothing political in our three areas of focus: Aliyah and absorption, strengthening Israeli society in the weaker populations and strengthening the connection between Diaspora communities and Israel. So the first thing we try to tell people is that we’re above politics even though we have an official capacity. God forbid anyone considering stepping back or holding back because of the political situation in Israel and there has been some noise like that, I cannot deny that, we explained to them that the only the only result of holding back from supporting KH is going to be to harm the beneficiaries, which are the new immigrants, the youth at risk, the elderly, even Holocaust survivors, as well as those that benefit from the great programs and work that we support and to with the Jewish Agency. And so we hope that that resonates because the reality is that the work that we do is really humanitarian in nature. At the same time, we’re not living in a vacuum and we’re not disconnected. Which is also part of our job is we’re not just a mechanism for collecting money, we are also a bridge and a connection. So part of our duty is to keep our donors’ informed and I would even dare say, educated and that’s a challenge because even here inside Israel, it’s hard to follow what’s going on. So first of all, we try to explain in a calm way to the extent we can, what’s going on and what these disagreements are about, and try to put them into perspective, which is also why we did put out statements expressing our concern and calling for unity, dialogue and mutual respect. We even called the government to slow down and to listen to the president. There is a tendency to get swept away with media headlines such as: The sky is falling and that it’s the end of democracy or that Israel is going to become a dictatorship. So without taking political sides, we do try to kind of set the record straight on those issues.

Were there any donors who said we’re not going to donate because of the situation?

Yes, but really on the fence. More from certain countries, mainly in Europe.

What do you have planned for Israel’s 75th Independence Day?

We’re very excited for Israel’s 75th. We’re also very happy of the recent developments and calming down in Israel to also give not only Israelis but Jews everywhere, a chance to focus on the positive and celebrating. We are hosting an annual world KH conference the week of Yom Ha’atzmaut [Independence Day]. We’re have delegations from all over the world coming – our leaders and donors from all over the world. Because it’s been 75 years, we’re doing a lot of joint events together with other organizations such as a gala with some of the other national institutions, the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, and also with the Jewish Federations of North America. 

We’re going to have the prime minister and the president speak and it’ll really show the strength of the organizations together, but also show unity and solidarity, which is something that’s very much needed these days. In addition, a lot of the communities will celebrate, not necessarily on the day itself, but they will host campaign openings. We have different things going on in different places. 

We will also host our Yakir Awards in recognition of outstanding donors from five or six different regions in the world. It’s important to celebrate our achievements, especially at this time, where there’s a feeling not only in Israel, but around the world that we’re divided and that we need to really show unity and solidarity.■