Israel's spirit of giving

Last summer, as Hizbullah rockets rained down on cities and communities in the North, Arkady Gaydamak donated an astounding $250,000 a day to build a "refugee camp." on the Nitzanim beach.

arkady gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
arkady gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
Last summer, as Hizbullah rockets rained down on cities and communities in the North, a local millionaire donated an astounding $250,000 a day to build a "refugee camp" on the Nitzanim beach between Ashkelon and Ashdod. The respite from Katyushas and air-raid sirens was not the only contribution made last year by Russian-born Arkadi Gaydamak to the country's weakest communities. His philanthropic ventures also saw him whisking away families from the besieged town of Sderot to Eilat for a few days of relaxation and rejuvenation in November. While Gaydamak's donations might have been the endeavors that hit the headlines in 2006, a growing number of individuals and local businesses have started to become involved in contributing to homegrown causes. "Israelis are very generous people and respond to a cause, as was shown this past summer when people opened their houses to families from the North," notes Nicky Capelouto, chairman of the Jewish Agency-backed Spirit of Israel campaign, which invites Israelis living here and abroad to donate to local causes. "In the past, Israelis took the attitude that they served in the army and paid their taxes, so why should they raise money too? That was up to the Jewish communities abroad," says Capelouto. "The approach is different now." The Spirit of Israel campaign was launched nine years ago into a market that was not used to raising funds in its own community, says its director Joe Dushansky, an immigrant from South Africa. "We started from nothing," he says. "We had to build an image and position ourselves within the community. We also had to compete with 36,000 other local charities. But if there is one thing the Spirit of Israel campaign has achieved, it is to bring a focus on the need for Israeli giving. The campaign was a wake up call for Israeli philanthropy." Today the Spirit of Israel campaign brings in between NIS 30-40 million a year. It sponsors the yearly Yomtov Telethon which raises money for children at risk and has a growing database of 240,000 contributors, says Dushansky. With an emphasis on pushing the corporate sector to contribute more to its projects, a new trend in the Spirit of Israel campaign is for large companies to initiate "matching fund donations," meaning that Jewish communities around the world are invited to provide an equivalent amount for a certain project or program. Less than three months into 2007, a business conglomerate, with an estimated asset value of $3 billion, pledged nearly $25 million to rebuild and strengthen the North via Jewish Agency projects. The donation, which stipulates that Jewish communities, through the United Jewish Communities and Keren Hayesod/United Israel Appeal, must match its dollars, was made by the IDB Group, former owners of the Israel Discount Bank. "The fate of the country lies in the unity of the people as well as the willingness of each and every one of us to join in the effort to improve our lives and strengthen the endurance of our society," said Nochi Dankner, chairman of the IDB Group, when he announced the pledge. Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski called the donation a "milestone in the decades-old joint venture between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry in building Israel." "The focus and priority of the Jewish Agency has been redefined and new ideas are always needed to galvanize communities overseas," says Capelouto. "The concept of Israeli donors investing in Israeli projects is a great boost to overseas campaigns. Diaspora communities feel inspired by Israeli donations like this." IF PROJECT RENEWAL was the campaign that brought in Diaspora fund-raising to save Israeli society, and Partnership 2000 served as an attempt to readdress that relationship, Prof. Eliezer Jaffe, founder of the Hebrew University School of Social Work and author of Giving Wisely, a list of non-profits in Israel, sees the concept of matching funds and Israelis contributing to their own causes as a natural progression for international Jewish philanthropy and the next step for Israel-Diaspora relations. "This is the next big challenge for Jewish philanthropy," he says. "American donors want to be able to say that Israelis are providing their share. The corporate sector is just beginning to wake up to these fund-raising opportunities." However, Jaffe is quick to point out that while Israeli households do not donate as much per capita as American Jewish households, supporting the State of Israel has "never been a one-way street." "It is an unfair character assassination to say that Israelis are 'schnorrers.' If we take the spirit of volunteerism that exists here and turn it into salaries, they have always been contributors," he says. "Stories of people helping themselves never get into the newspapers, but there are many unsung Israeli heroes."