Evangelical Aid was Once Taboo in Israel. Now It’s On The Rise. Why?

Feast of Tabernacles celebration; photo courtesy Land of the Bible.
Feast of Tabernacles celebration, Jerusalem; photo courtesy Land of the Bible.

By Judy Maltz

The winner of one of the top annual awards for service to the Jewish community, Sherly America-Gosal was not an obvious pick. Forget the fact that she isn’t Jewish. America-Gosal, president of the Keren Hayesod’s women’s division and a devout Evangelical Christian, hails from Indonesia, an overwhelmingly Muslim country with no diplomatic ties to Israel.

Yet, she is the first Christian individual to receive the prestigious Yakir Award presented each year by Keren Hayesod (also known as United Israel Appeal), the official Israeli fundraising organization whose domain includes the entire world outside of the United States. Explaining its choice, the awards committee noted that America-Gosal had “pioneered the Keren Hayesod cause in Asia and tirelessly advances it, mainly among Christian business and community leaders.” It also praised her for initiating fundraising events “in which hundreds of influential leaders from Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Papua New Guinea participate.”

Christian Evangelical support for Israel has, indeed, spread far beyond the traditional confines of Bible Belt America. Wherever the trans-denominational Protestant movement is on the rise these days – and that includes large swaths of South America and Asia – so, too, is a desire to engage with the Holy Land. This sentiment, to the great satisfaction of those involved in fundraising for Israel, is increasingly getting translated into dollars-and-cents support.

(Almost all Christian charity donated to Israel comes from Evangelical groups. That does not mean, though, that all Evangelical groups are Zionist-oriented. As a case in point, World Vision, the Evangelical relief organization accused last week by Israeli authorities of having been infiltrated by Hamas, is active in Gaza and Arab East Jerusalem.)

According to the latest Pew report, there are an estimated 285 million Evangelicals worldwide, and they account for 13 percent of the total Christian population. Although its main stronghold is the United States, Evangelical Christianity has gained a huge following in recent decades in the developing world.

“Pro-Israel support has gone mainstream,” observes David Parsons, the longstanding media and public relations director at the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. “A lot of churches these days are realizing that they have to have some outlet for interest in Israel – whether it’s trips or charitable work.”

ICEJ, which engages in educational, interfaith and charity work in Israel, set up its headquarters in Jerusalem in 1980. Today, it has satellite offices in 85 countries around the world, among them, eight new branches in Muslim-majority countries and one in the Communist stronghold of Cuba. Best known for hosting a Feast of Tabernacles event that brings thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem each fall, ICEJ also funds various humanitarian aid projects in Israel, with specific focus on the elderly and immigrants.

When Parson talks about Christian support for Israel going mainstream, he doesn’t only mean the donor base, which has expanded way beyond its traditional stronghold in the United States. Israelis, too, he notes, have begun to free themselves of many of the longstanding taboos associated with taking Christian money. As a case in point, Parson cites ICEJ’s relatively new fundraising partnership with Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial and museum. “To me, it’s an indication of a growing openness on the part of Israelis,” he says.

Christian Friends of Israel is another Evangelical organization based in Jerusalem with satellite offices around the world. Among its other charity projects, CFI donates care packages to needy immigrants and protective gear to Israeli soldiers. “More and more of our support is coming from Latin America, especially Brazil, these days,” says Sharon Sanders, an Evangelical Christian who founded the organization with her husband in 1985 and is based in Jerusalem. “Another world that recently opened to us is Asia, particularly Taiwan, China, Singapore and Japan.”

Not to mention even more far-flung corners of the world. Sanders says she was recently invited to deliver a talk on the organization’s work in, of all places, Mongolia.

Founded in 1976, Bridges for Peace was the first Evangelical ministry to set up base in Israel. As it notes on its website: “We are giving Christians the opportunity to actively express their biblical responsibility before God to be faithful to Israel and the Jewish community.”

Greater acceptance

When Evangelical Christians first began supporting charity causes in Israel, about 35 years ago, their money was not always welcome. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews, to this day, refuse to accept charity from Christians, suspicious that the real motive behind the generosity is to lure them away from Judaism.

For many years, they were not the only Israelis to regard these donations with suspicion. And often for good reason: Among the dozen or so messianic ministries scattered around Israel, many do not hide the fact that their ultimate goal is to get the Jews to embrace Jesus Christ as their savior. But most of the other ministries – and that includes those engaged in charity giving, like ICEJ and CFI – do not declare this to be their mission and, in fact, categorically deny it. As time has passed, Israelis have learned to trust them.

As Tuly Weisz, the publisher of Israel365, a daily newsletter distributed to 250,000 Christian Zionists around the world, notes: “Israelis have seen over the years that there are no strings attached and that nobody is trying to convert them, so they feel better about it.”

Still, a large chunk of this Christian Zionist philanthropy is directed at promoting immigration – and many Evangelicals believe the return of the Jews to Israel is a prerequisite for the second coming of Jesus Christ. They are not likely to mention that, though, in the presence of Israelis, as those who work closely with them attest. Rather, they talk about a desire to make amends for the past.

“When we first learned about what the Jews went through,” says Sanders of Christian Friends of Israel, referring to the Holocaust, “we were shocked. It wasn’t something we were taught in our Sunday school classes. We love Israel unconditionally and are sorry for what happened.”

When CFI first set up its base in Israel, she says, Israelis regarded the organization with mistrust. “People would us ask why we were here, and why we want the Jews to be here in Israel if we didn’t want them in Europe,” relays Sanders. “We don’t hear that anymore.”

Dr. Faydra Shapiro, an Israeli expert on Evangelical Christian Zionists, says that supporting Israel is perceived among this community as different than any other cause. “Israel is understood to be foundational to the gospel,” says Shapiro, director of the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations at Yezreel Valley College. “In this way of thinking, Jesus, the Bible, the Apostles, the prophets – they came from the nation of Israel. So while supporting good causes around the world is an important expression of Christian love, supporting the nation of Israel is paying a kind of debt.”

Many, like Shapiro, cite Genesis 12:3 (“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”) as the inspiration for Christian giving to Israel. “They read this verse to infer that by blessing Israel – and that easily gets understood as the State of Israel – they will themselves be blessed by God,” she says. “And let’s face it – who doesn’t want to be blessed?”

But other more recent developments may also play a role. As Jonathan Feldstein, a professional fundraiser whose expertise is the Evangelical community, notes: “There has been a sense in recent years that Christians, like Jews, are facing a common enemy in Islamic fundamentalism.”

Shapiro concurs. “No question that a kind of co-belligerence against radical Islam helps people see value in a Jewish/Israeli/Christian alliance, because both groups feel threatened and even targeted.”

Yet another possible factor is simple logistics. In the past, much of the fundraising efforts on Israel’s behalf were undertaken through expensive television advertisements and infomercials. Technology has changed all that, as Weisz points out. “Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s become much cheaper to raise money, so more people are doing it,” he notes.

Christian Friends organizations

Tapping into this new groundswell of Evangelical support for Israel are not only Christian Zionist ministries but also Israeli-based organizations and institutions, many of which are for the first time actively soliciting donations from non-Jews. Take, for example, Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency medical service organization, which two months ago hired a Christian pastor to run its fundraising operation in the United States. Others have taken to setting up “Christian Friends of …” fundraising arms, among them the Leket national food bank, the Israel Disabled Veterans organization, Rambam hospital in Haifa, and Shalva, an organization that assists children with special needs.

True, major fundraising organizations like The Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod, have been the beneficiaries of Christian charity for years. It just wasn’t talked about much because of the taboos associated with accepting such contributions. Today, not only are organizations like these increasingly up front about their funding sources, but they are also actively soliciting from Christian donors.

“Christian money is definitely not a substitute for Jewish donations, but we most certainly intend to continue nurturing these ties,” says Daniela Mor, who oversees such efforts at The Jewish Agency.

As a fundraising professional with longstanding ties to the Christian Evangelical community, Dvora Ganani finds herself much sought-after these days. Yet, she warns against overblown expectations. “In dollar terms, we’re still not talking about any big increases in the total amount of Christian donations to Israel, because unlike Jewish donors, Christians give in very small amounts,” says Ganani, who previously served as director-general of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – by far the biggest organization involved in fundraising for Israel among Evangelicals. “What we are seeing, though, is an increase in the total number of donors.”

Yechiel Eckstein, the high-profile Orthodox rabbi who founded IFCJ, likes to say that hard-working Christians who “give up their latte at Starbucks for a cheaper one at McDonalds” make his donations possible. His average donation, he says, is $76.

Another difference between the Jewish and Christian charity world, when it comes to causes in Israel, is in the buttons that need to be pressed. “When you pitch to Christians, you have to be able to communicate the narrative in a way that resonates with them,” explains Tuly Weisz, the newsletter publisher who is also an Orthodox rabbi. “For example, if you’re trying to raise money for the Israel Defense Forces, you can’t present it as a story of Israel’s melting pot. You need to talk about these soldiers as the protectors of Israel, following in the footsteps of King David’s army.”

Still no contest for Jewish charity

No organization or institute keeps official tabs on Evangelical charity-giving in Israel, but according to various estimates, the total annual sum ranges in the vicinity of $175-$200 million, with IFCJ responsible for the lion’s share. Last year, IFCJ raised $140 million, most of it earmarked for organizations and projects in Israel, while about a dozen other Israel-oriented Evangelical ministries – some based in Israel, and others outside the country – brought in a few million dollars each, as did the American and Christian fundraising arms of various Israeli nonprofits. Considering that an estimated $3 billion in Jewish charity was transferred to Israel last year from overseas, the Christian charities still lag far behind.

Yet, as independent charity consultant Misha Galperin notes, the trends are shifting. “Unlike Jewish philanthropy, Christian philanthropy to Israel continues to grow even during difficult economic times,” he says. “Besides that, there are many more Christians in this world, so there’s a much larger pool to draw from.”

In the past, almost all the Christian Evangelical charity in Israel originated in the United States. Donors in the United States still account for the lion’s share, but they have been joined by many others over the past 10-15 years, particularly from Asia and South America.

Galperin, formerly the chief international fundraiser for The Jewish Agency, points out that 70 percent of the funds raised by the Jewish federations annually used to be sent to Israel – most of it straight to the coffers of The Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee. “Last year, the federations raised $900 million, and less than $150 million of that sum went to Israel,” he notes. “That’s a huge drop, and it has to do with the fact that today you have many other organizations competing for these funds, whether it’s the local JCCs, Tikkun Olam-themed organizations (focusing on social action), Jewish day schools and Jewish camps.”

In its latest annual assessment, the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, warned of a related development warranting “close attention.”

Noting that many federations were reporting that their giving had been “flat” for several years, the report said: “A generational transition of philanthropists in the United States is leading to a new approach to donations to Jewish causes, as the younger philanthropists tend more to support secular, rather than Jewish and Israeli causes.”

Hagai Katz, an expert on philanthropy from Ben-Gurion University, notes two parallel trends that could increase the share of Evangelical money in the total amount of charity pouring into Israel. One is an overall drop in Jewish-sourced charity, both because of the fall-out from the Bernard Madoff investment scandal, from which many Jewish institutions have yet to recover, and changing priorities among Jewish philanthropists.* “There is a decline in willingness among American Jews, particularly the younger generation, to give to causes in Israel,” he notes. “They would much rather put their money in Tikkun Olam projects in places like Africa and South America, especially considering that there is a lot of discontent among them with Israeli government policy.”

[*eJP takes exception to Katz’s comments. First, while the Madoff effect certainly affected philanthropic giving in the short term, U.S. giving is currently above pre-crisis levels. As to giving from the federation world, yes, “core” funding to their overseas partners has decreased. BUT, giving to specific programs in Israel has actually increased. Also giving to Friends organizations, estimated at $1.5 billion/year, has brought new funders to the table. Not to be ignored, the significant amount of philanthropy by Israelis to projects in Israel.]

On the other hand, he notes that growing religious extremism in certain segments of the Evangelical community has prompted greater engagement with Israel. “For these people, donating charity to Israel is seen as a way to expedite the second coming of Christ.”

Supplanting or filling in the void?

Weisz, the newsletter publisher, says Christian philanthropy is still not a “game-changing phenomenon” in Israel. “You don’t see any big buildings in the country named after Christians,” he notes by way of example.

Yet, at the same time, he says, Evangelical donors are beginning to pick up the slack resulting from recent trends in Jewish philanthropy. “As the Jewish donor base is shrinking and aging, there is growing recognition that Christian donors can fill in the gap,” he says. Like many of his Israeli colleagues with close ties to the Evangelical community, Weisz is an Orthodox immigrant from the United States.

Could they ultimately supplant Jewish charity givers? Weisz doesn’t think so, though he believes Evangelical funds could eventually “help relieve the Jewish community of some of its charity burden.”

Or as Eckstein puts it: “I would never want to say that Christian money is replacing Jewish money, but we are definitely filling in the gaps.”

Christian Friends of Israeli Communities is an organization that raises about $1 million a year for charity work in Jewish West Bank settlements. Sondra Baras, the Israeli co-director of the organization, says she would be extremely troubled if Christians were to ultimately take over for the Jews. “Not because I don’t love Christian philanthropy,” she explains, “but because I want Jews to keep feeling connected to Israel. I believe that for Jews, charity to Israel is a kind of tax they need to pay, and a Jew who doesn’t give to Israel is not a good Jew. I don’t feel the same way about Christians.”

The International Christian Embassy’s latest big project in Israel is a home for destitute Holocaust survivors in Haifa. In addition to the 70 occupants of the facility, it also feeds 130 people a day. “We have no intention of supplanting Jewish money,” says Parsons, “but rather, we step up in cases like this when we find people falling between the cracks.”

Outdoing the federations

IFCJ, the largest private philanthropy active in Israel, today raises more money than any single Jewish federation in North America outside of New York. Bomb shelters donated by the organization can be found at remote locations around the country. Planes bearing its logo have been flying in growing numbers of immigrants, especially from Ukraine and France, in recent years. On army bases around the country, IFCJ provides soldiers and their families with complimentary drinks and snacks at induction ceremonies. Food baskets for the poor are handed out at its distribution centers before every Jewish holiday. Eckstein, who founded the organization 35 years ago, still speaks Hebrew with a strong American accent, and his distinctive voice, featured on widely broadcast advertisements for his organization, is recognizable to most Israeli radio listeners.

When it comes to fundraising among Evangelical Christians, few can shine his shoes. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he tends to draw lots of fire. His detractors like to point out the generous compensation package he pays himself and his daughter, who serves as his deputy. Some have taken issue with his fundraising tactics, in particular his insistence on portraying Israel as an impoverished nation desperately seeking handouts. Others don’t take well to his “my way or the highway” approach to collaboration. Two years ago, for example, he withdrew millions of dollars in annual funding to The Jewish Agency because he didn’t think it was doing a good enough job promoting immigration to Israel. He then went on to set up his own independent aliyah operation. The Jewish Agency, for its part, said that the partnership fell apart because it wasn’t willing to accept a long list of demands from Eckstein, which they believed were aimed at generating greater hype and publicity for his organization. About a year ago, when the government began dragging its feet over a proposition he presented to set up a joint national food safety net, Eckstein again lost patience and has since made a solo go of it.

IFCJ currently funds about 400 projects in Israel, many of them through municipalities or the Joint Distribution Committee. Increasingly, though, its strategy has been to stop financing projects of others and instead launch its own initiatives. Last year, Eckstein says, his organization raised $10 million more than the previous year “and we have never in our history had a down year.”

Since its inception, IFCJ has raised donations from close to 1.5 million Evangelical donors around the world. Although its main donor base is in the United States, IFCJ is active today in more than a dozen countries, recently launching major thrusts into Brazil and Korea.

In the early years, Eckstein recounts, some of his beneficiaries were reluctant to acknowledge his Christian donors publicly. That included Nefesh b’Nefesh, the organization that handles aliyah from the United States, Canada and Great Britain on behalf of the Israeli government. When he learned that Nefesh b’Nefesh had removed the IFCJ logo from its flights to Israel, under pressure from Orthodox passengers, Eckstein responded by withdrawing his support.

It’s not that Nefesh b’Nefesh is averse to taking Christian money, though. Almost every year, it receives donations from John Hagee, the mega-pastor who founded Christians United for Israel – often referred to as the Christian equivalent of AIPAC. The John Hagee Ministries allocate a total of $2-3 million a year to Israeli charities, with Nefesh b’Nefesh usually the largest single recipient of this funding.

Shavei Israel is another aliyah-oriented organization that has benefited from Christian funding over the years. An organization which “reaches out to ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ Jews around the world,” as it notes on its website, Shavei Israel received almost all its funding, amounting to several million dollars a year, from Christian organizations until about two years ago.

Charity preferences

Most Christian charities active in Israel tend to focus on three main areas: promoting aliyah, helping the poor and sick, and strengthening national security. Projects that promote Jewish identity are not of interest to them. Nor, for the most part, are causes that whiff of left-wing politics, be it ending the occupation or promoting LGBT rights. On this count at least, Christian Evangelicals share a lot in common with Israel’s Jewish religious right. Drawing their inspiration from the Bible, Evangelicals are typically diehard supporters of the Jewish settlement movement and often prioritize projects that strengthen the so-called “Greater Land of Israel.” Christian Friends of Israeli communities, for example, invests exclusively in projects based in West Bank settlements.

“I live in a Jewish settlement, but I have to say that many of these Evangelical donors are even far more to the right than I am,” observes Feldstein, who serves today as vice president for the Koby Mandell Foundation, which assists families who have lost loved ones in terror attacks. At least 25 percent of the foundation’s funding, he says, comes from Christian sources.

That could help explain the success of an organization like Christian Friends of Israeli Communities. Baras, a former Clevelander who set up the Israel office, is a resident of Karnei Shomron and longtime settler activist.

As she recounts, CFIC got its start in 1995, after the Israeli government decided to concede sovereignty over sections of the West Bank as part as the Oslo Accords. “’What have you done?’” Baras recalls her Christian friends crying out in protest.

Samaritan’s Purse, which declares on its website that “our ministry is all about Jesus – first, last, and always” is engaged in relief work around the world. Relatively recently, it made a first major donation to an Israeli organization, purchasing two ambulances for Magen David Adom.

Eagles’ Wings, another U.S.-based Evangelical organization has been conducting trips to Israel, including a new Birthright-style tour for young adults, for more than 20 years. Recently, it also began raising money for charity projects. As Wendy Miller, vice president of the organization, explained in an email: “There seems to be an increasing interest among a large contingent of Evangelical Christians to support Israel in many ways, including financially. Many Christians desire to do something tangible to show their belief in the importance of Israel. We expect this to continue to increase as awareness of the facts of Israel’s situation are spread internationally through ministries and organizations focused on these efforts.”