eJP Interview Series

‘Get Your Phil’ with Steven Weil

Friends of the Israel Defense Forces expects to donate some $90 million toward mental health-related projects for soldiers and veterans, the organization’s CEO Steve Weil told eJewishPhilanthropy in the latest episode of the “Get Your Phil” interview series this week.

This includes a recent $24 million donation to expand the mental health services provided by the Sheba Medical Center outside of Tel Aviv. The organization is also constructing a facility in the coastal city of Netanya that will offer therapy to soldiers and veterans, as well as “resilience” training for troops, which is expected to cost at least $35 million; and it is funding “SOULdier Recharge” programs, in which soldiers coming off the front lines are given a few days to rest and recuperate, Weil said. These calm periods after battle also give mental health professionals an opportunity to do early screening and identify soldiers who show warning signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Weil said the Defense Ministry approached FIDF about funding the mental health programs out of an understanding that this would be a major issue going forward.

“The [ministry] is expecting that anyone who’s done frontline service — we’re looking at 15% of them will have acute PTSD and on top of the acute PTSD up to another 30% will have mild PTSD,” he said.

All told, these three PTSD-related programs are expected to cost $85-$90 million, Weil said. He added that this is “just one thing that [the Israeli Defense Ministry] asked us for. It’s a big thing, the PTSD [programs], but it’s just one of the things that we’re doing.”

According to Weil, FIDF made a decision in the early days of the war to “not say no” to requests from the IDF and Israel’s Defense Ministry. 

“When the war came, that Monday I called a board meeting, and in that board meeting, we made a decision: This is a war. This is existential. In a war, you don’t say no,” Weil said. “Not only that, we took zero overhead. Every penny that went to the emergency campaign is transferred to the army for the benefit of the soldiers. We’re not going to say no. We haven’t said no to this day.”

Initially, the military requested medical-related equipment — blood plasma, X-ray machines, EKG machines and all-terrain bulletproof ambulances — but it has since changed to things like financial assistance for the families of reservists who were injured in the fighting, Weil said.

“The needs change each and every day. I’d say we were getting called two to three times a day to transfer funds for specific needs, critical urgent needs [when the war first started]. Today we’re getting called three, four times a week,” he said.

To accomplish this, the organization has stepped up its fundraising efforts considerably, growing its donor base “four-fold,” Weil said, though he declined to share how much the organization had raised until the figures have been audited. “I would say that we have seen — and we’re not the only ones — an incredible generosity. I’m not sure American Jews have been this generous since the Yom Kippur War. And the kind of generosity, the kind of support, the kind of empathy that we’re seeing has just been incredible,” he said.

The majority of the donations that FIDF has received are “clearly predominantly” from the Jewish community, but Weil said the Christian community is interested in hearing about the issues.

Weil said the organization has largely been following a plan that it devised after the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, known as Operation Guardian of the Walls. 

“We prepared a plan in June of ’21 that we implemented,” he said. “We’ve tweaked it over time, but it was something that we had ready to go because we knew the needs of the army and the needs of the soldiers. If there would be an attack by multiple proxies, by multiple Iranian proxies, [we knew] that the kind of resources we’d have to raise would be something above and beyond anyone’s expectations or imagination.”

Weil said that while the organization can scarcely afford the programs that it is already running, FIDF is preparing for the possibility for a full-scale war on the northern border with Hezbollah, which has a far larger and more powerful arsenal than Hamas and would be able to wreak havoc on Israel’s infrastructure.

“As much as we’re raising, we don’t have the funds to cover the needs of this war,” he said. “And the reality is… we’ve trained the staff to say this to our donors: If there’s a war with Hezbollah, we’re going to have to come back a second, a third, a fourth time.”

He added: “All I can do is prepare people, [because] we do not have a nest egg. We don’t have reserves for that.”

Here is a recording of the conversation: