By Andrés Spokoiny and Dr. Georgette Bennett
Another day of celebration transformed into a day of mourning. Another day of gratitude transformed into a day of outrage. Another day of peace transformed into a day of murder. Another day dedicated to praise the beautiful things of the world transformed into a day in which all its ugliness is shown. Another day on which we wonder how we can tell our children that people are good and that the world is safe. Another day on which the unthinkable becomes the unsurprising.
Words to describe the horror of the attack at the Chabad Poway Synagogue haven’t been invented. Any attempt to describe a sermon interrupted by gunshots is futile; any effort to depict the courage of a woman jumping in front of her rabbi to protect him from the bullets is inadequate. The 26 letters of the alphabet simply aren’t enough. We are left with silence and with tears that are nothing but the overflowing of emotions we can’t express.
As funders, we share the emotion, the shock, the bewilderment, the anguish, and the outrage. But funders are also communal leaders. Whether we ask for it or not, we are in the drivers’ seats of many communal programs and policies. In this time of anguish and fear, people will look to us for support, resources, and guidance. They will seek our empathy but also our calming leadership. So we need to give time and space for our emotions, but simultaneously, we need to seek a thoughtful and strategic response to this tragedy.
So how can funders respond?
Now is the time to harness the power of the collective. In the short term, the Jewish Federation of San Diego County and Jewish Community Foundation San Diego are currently creating a joint fund to address the needs of the victim’s family, the injured, Chabad of Poway, and the broader San Diego county Jewish community in the wake of this tragic and evil attack. Click here to donate >>
In the long term, here are some elements of what a thoughtful philanthropic response might look like – some have been shared in response to past tragedies, while some are new:
1. First do no harm.
The maxim that guides medical professionals is also valid for funders that respond to tragedy. Sadly, in today’s politically polarized world, everything is an opportunity to score political points. The “I told you so” statements are not helpful; the “your side is to blame for antisemitism” sows more division and helps nobody; pointing fingers only serves the haters. In the past, antisemitism used to be a unifier – we all came together in the face of hatred despite out differences. Now, it’s becoming another excuse for internecine hatred. Funders need to be a force of unity and moderation, a factor that puts oil in the wheels of communal dialogue, not a force of further polarization. Keeping the discourse civil and constructive is partially our responsibility. Funders have an opportunity to speak for, work for, and invest in coexistence instead of division. That means supporting effective intergroup relations organizations and programs.
2. This is the new normal
It’s heartbreaking to write these words, but we can’t think anymore that these terrorist attacks are unusual occurrences. In six months there have been more victims of anti-Jewish violence in America than for centuries before. The zeitgeist is one of extremism and hatred, the internet is teeming with venom, and we live in a country in which every terrorist can buy a semi-automatic gun without so much as a background check. While it’s necessary to respond to every crisis, we need to see this as part of an ongoing reality, like European communities learned to do years ago. For decades our communities have tried to produce counter-messaging that discredits white supremacism with facts and debunks antisemitic tropes and narratives. These efforts have been insufficient in the age of internet and social media. We need to find new technology and digital strategies to counter hateful ideologies and reduce antisemitism in society and, simultaneously, find new strategies to thrive even if and when antisemitism persists.
3. Serious – and smart – investments in security
Foundations need to add funding for security to everything they do – as simple as that. There are resources from local and federal agencies, but they only partially cover the needs. When federal funds are available, they are paid on a reimbursement basis and many nonprofits can’t advance the funds. There are programs, like those of UJA-Federation of NY and Hebrew Free Loan Society, that provide bridge loans, and such programs should be expanded and replicated. JFNA’s program of “Community Security Coordinators” is a model that has proved its worth. Some foundations, like the Paul E. Singer Foundation, AVI CHAI Foundation, and others have allocated extra dollars to security needs. We need to follow their lead. We need to treat this as a communal emergency that demands not a small portion of our 5% payout, but a serious investment. Today, most Jewish facilities in the country are “soft targets.” Much needs to be done to harden them.
But care must be taken to ensure these security investments will actually meet their goals. Security is a difficult field, and throwing money at the problem won’t help if those investments aren’t smart and guided by experts who base their counsel on evidence.
Furthermore, hardening organizations can make them less welcoming. Nobody wants going to shul to be like entering a fortress, and nobody should want our institutions to become sites of useless and harmful forms of discrimination. Too much emphasis on the visible trappings of security (“security theatre,” rather than the substance of what really makes our communities safer) may hurt more than it helps in terms of communal resilience. The challenge is to find a model that can provide security and openness, protection and a sense of home. Expert leaders in security can help us seek this balance, using evidence-based approaches to help Jewish institutions become truly safer rather than merely more foreboding.
4. Support the victims, witnesses, and first responders.
As somebody who lived through the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and of AMIA in Argentina, I know the trauma and the gloom that descends on a community when terror strikes. The first responders and the congregants are hit particularly hard. We need to recognize and anticipate the PTSD that often results from terror attacks and invest in programs that address it. A number of Israeli nonprofits are highly experienced at treating both physical and psychological trauma, and such work needs to be part of the American response as well.
Even when the aftermath doesn’t rise to a diagnosis of PTSD, certain images that a witness or first responder sees can’t be unseen, some feelings and memories will haunt them forever. The community will need our backing in the months and years to come. Yet, that backing needs to take place in an organic manner, coordinating with local organizations, like Federations and Jewish Family Services. They know the fabric of the community and can operate better than somebody who “waltzes in” from the outside.
5. Analysis and research
Organizations like the ADL have been warning about the rise of antisemitism in America. They, and others, have conducted extensive research to show the growth of hate speech online and the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in its three variants: white supremacist, far leftist and Islamic. Yet, like most things in this polarized times, their findings have become a political football instead of a call to action. Funders need to both invest in research and encourage data driven decisions. We also need to recognize that antisemites are antisemites, regardless of their political persuasions.
6. Advocacy and political action
Ultimately, meaningful change necessitates public policies, government funding, and political backing. Hiding behind a pretense of being “non-political,” we can try to ignore the gun issue, but the truth is that guns are common in mass killings in America. We can be horrified, but not surprised, that a mass shooting happened at a synagogue? – after all, they’ve happened in schools, concerts, churches, and even army barracks. And the solution to the gun issue is ultimately political. Political action is also needed in addressing other aspects of this issue, from public funds for security to the debasement of political discourse in America. Political action is needed to curb the spread of BDS and demonization of Israel and political action is needed to sort out the thorny question of freedom of speech versus incitement to hatred from whatever it comes. Foundations need to be careful regarding what activities can be considered charitable when embarking upon political action and advocacy, but we can’t ignore them if we are to produce real change.
7. Communication, partnership, and cooperation
Whenever disaster strikes, we see a lot of duplication and “stepping on toes.” Funders and organizations rush to help and the lack of coordination and communication makes the response less than optimal. Some areas or needs are overfunded while others don’t receive the necessary attention. We’ve learned from global experience that a coordinating mechanism for immediate and long term assistance is very important in streamlining help and making sure that no significant gaps remain in the response. Other parts of the Jewish world offer some insights in that regard. In Israel, the creation of “RAHEL” (the National Emergency Authority) after the Second Lebanon War made the philanthropic response to the subsequent Gaza wars more effective and efficient. The creation of the CST (Community Security Trust) in the UK helped provide a comprehensive view of the security needs of the entire community. Funders themselves need to create permanent consultative mechanisms around issues of security and resilience. In America, at the local level, Federations and JCRCs provide a great avenue for centralization and streamlining.
In the days and weeks to come, JFN will be working with our local, national, and international partners to identify ways in which funders can help both with immediate and long-term needs. Wanting to “do something” is not only morally correct, but therapeutic for ourselves and others. Much of the anguish and anxiety that these tragedies generate stems from the perception that the world is out of our control, and nothing is more distressing than helplessness. By doing what we can, we alter that reality and reclaim agency for ourselves and our communities.
JFN, together with partners and members, will convene funders to discuss the long term needs in security and resilience with the goal of generating concrete commitments to take action.
Yes, words can’t describe the horror of San Diego. But words can’t describe love either. In this time of hatred and sorrow, our love needs to speak louder than hate; our actions need to speak louder than our despair and our care for one another need to speak louder than those who seek to harm us and divide us.
We can’t describe the pain, but we can fight it and we can overcome it, as we have done so many times in the past.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network. Dr. Georgette Bennett is Chair, Jewish Funders Network.