Food for thought

Experts offer insights, but few answers, on how Oct. 7 will change American Jewish giving to Israel

Academics provide historical context of U.S. Jewry's donations to Israeli causes leading up to Oct. 7, but say it's too soon to tell what the future will hold

How unprecedented, really, was the unprecedented level of donations to Israel by American Jews following the Oct. 7 terror attacks and what does it mean for the future of American Jewish giving to Israel?

These were the two main questions raised on Thursday in a webinar organized by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Law and Philanthropy and the Ruderman Family Foundation, in which four experts in the field discussed their recent research and thoughts about the current situation.

Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, a deputy director of the Ruderman Family Foundation and a visiting scholar at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, shared the findings of a recent study by the foundation about American Jewish giving, which was released in February. That research, which looked at donations to all causes by Jews, not just to Israel, focused on giving data from 2022, meaning it did not reflect the post-Oct. 7 rise in donations from U.S. Jews, yet she said it still offered an important “baseline” for further study.

Bar Nissim said it was too soon to tell if the rise in American Jewish giving to Israel would continue, as a trend, into the future. “We need to give it some time. It’s [only] been eight months,” she said, noting that the effects of the COVID-19 crisis are still playing out. “Our world, the professional world of philanthropy, is not a fast one.”

Yet Bar Nissim added that while “time will tell” how the Oct. 7 attacks would affect Jewish giving in the long term, she was convinced that Jewish donors would continue to help the Jewish people, as they have in previous modern crises: after the 1973 Yom Kippur War or the fall of the Soviet Union, two periods that also saw massive American Jewish fundraising for Israel. 

“I don’t think using the words unprecedented or extraordinary [is correct regarding Oct. 7],” she said. “The Jewish community has always come together for the Jewish people during crisis… Here we’re seeing another wonderful important example of coming together.”

Jamie Levine Daniel, an associate professor of nonprofit management and public service at  New York University, also drew on research about donations to Israel from the United States from before Oct. 7. 

Daniel noted that in general giving to causes in Israel has increased in real numbers, even as the percentage of donations to Israel has decreased compared to total giving, and that those donations are being done in different ways, namely with fewer donations going to large umbrella organizations to distribute to causes in Israel and more going directly to “American friends of” groups.

Theodore Sasson, a professor of Jewish studies at Middlebury College and a current Ruderman scholar-in-residence at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, provided a historical context for that move away from giving to large Jewish communal institutions.

“The field of institutional giving to Israel had been dominated for the first four decades after the foundation of the state by the United Jewish Appeal, which collectively raised about 80% of all dollars that went to Israel from U.S. Jewish donors,” Sasson said. 

“Beginning in the 1980s and then accelerating through the 1990s, more and more Israeli nonprofits and their American supporters established U.S.-based intermediary organizations, mostly ‘American friends of’ organizations, to enable direct giving outside of the UJA framework,” he said. 

By 2010, the share raised by the collective institution — now Jewish Federations of North America, not UJA — plummeted from 80% to 20%, according to Sasson.

Though it may have democratized the giving process and allowed donors to more easily give to the causes that they cared about, the move away from collective giving came at a cost, said Sasson, who did much of his research with Eric Fleisch, who recently published a book, Checkbook Zionism, on the subject of American Jewish giving to Israel. 

“[Collective giving] enables community building at the local federation level, to the extent that it occasions conversations within local Jewish communities about what causes in Israel to support, and it enables connections between American Jewish communities and particular Israeli communities,” he said. “That collective campaign also strengthens, to some extent, the voice of American Jews in the Israeli conversation by concentrating at least a portion of American Jewish giving.”

Sasson noted that after Oct. 7, this trend appeared to reverse, with the JFNA Israel Emergency Campaign raising and distributing vast amounts of money.

“In the last year we’ve seen a tremendous contribution by that collective system, the JFNA fundraising system, which raised during the wartime crisis $850 million, and it’s donated about half of that sum already to hundreds of Israeli nonprofit organizations,” Sasson said. “American Jews during this wartime crisis have donated hundreds of millions of dollars more… but the federation drive, the emergency campaign that raised $850 million rapidly, I think, deserves some attention from us in this forum.”

Noah D. Drezner, a professor of higher education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, raised more questions than he answered in his remarks. 

“Is this a new era of Jewish philanthropy where we’re seeing increased giving that’s going to be sustained? Or are we seeing a moment of crisis philanthropy where it might be sustained for a year or two while we’re in this current crisis but then settles back prior to Oct. 7 patterns,” he said. 

Drezner also wondered what the effects of the current moment would be on anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, such as IfNotNow or Jewish Voice for Peace. 

“I’m sure that many of us on this call don’t want to necessarily think about anti-Zionist organizations as being necessarily Jewish philanthropy, but how is that going to be impacted?” he asked.

The answers to Drezner’s questions and those raised by other panelists were, generally, that more time was needed, a response that did not sit well with at least some of the approximately 50 attendees, nearly all of them professionals in the Jewish philanthropic industry. 

Ronit Segelman, a philanthropic adviser who has worked for a variety of Israeli nonprofits, fumed at the “wait-and-see” approach that she felt the panelists were advocating. Segelman called for experts in the field to instead be at the forefront, calling for changes in the dynamics of American Jewish giving to Israel. 

“I feel very frustrated with the kind of ‘OK, we have to wait and see,’” she said. “No, I’m asking, what is the takeaway for Jewish philanthropy leaders? What should we do differently?” 

She noted that in the past, Jewish donors took the approach of waiting to see how the Israeli government would allocate the country’s budget before deciding where to make their donations. That changed after Oct. 7, when donors rushed in with funds because they felt the government was too slow to act. 

“Do we continue to give with the same habits or criteria or examinations that we did before, or will we see, for example, more trust-based philanthropy in Jewish philanthropy?” Segelman asked.

“Maybe there will be more trust-based philanthropy, because that’s what [the nonprofit field is] asking [for],” she said. “We’re so used to giving only after only after we’ve seen what the government has allocated.”

Joseph Hyman, the president of the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, 

noted the unprecedented time we are in philanthropically, amid three major “societal bombs” in four years, which makes it difficult to divine trends from giving data. “The fact that we had COVID-19, then Ukraine and this in four years has messed up the philanthropic system,” he said. 

Hyman also pushed back on the notion that it would take years before academics could reach conclusions about post-Oct. 7 giving. 

“People’s reaction time is much faster than ever before,” Hyman said. “By the second week of the war, people were giving away $1 million, half-a-million dollars. There was an initial knee-jerk reaction like we’ve never seen… I don’t think we have to wait two, three, four years to see the trend. I think that a study that looks over the course of the year, which takes us from Oct. 7 till the end of this year, will show us information that in the past might have taken two or three years to evolve.”