Hundreds gather in Tel Aviv for Jewish Funders Network’s annual convention

Organizers prioritize funder-to-funder discussions, brainstorming over keynote addresses at this year's conference, which focuses on rebuilding Israel post-Oct. 7 and addressing rising antisemitism around the world

TEL AVIV — The Hilton Hotel became the epicenter of frenzied activity this week as every public space in the building — the lobby, restaurant, seating nooks, empty halls and walkways — was used for conversations by the 600 attendees of the Jewish Funders Network’s four-day international convention, as well as dozens of people who just stopped by for meetings on the sidelines of the gathering.

After months of Israel being the focus of many Jewish donors around the world, having the conference in Tel Aviv allowed the Israeli participants and visitors a chance to meet, mingle, check-in and share both their experiences so far and their plans for the future.

These meetings — some scheduled, others spontaneous — were precisely the goal of the conference organizers, who prioritized conversations among funders over addresses by senior officials and analysts.

The scheduled sessions at the four-day conference, which ends on Wednesday, also primarily focused on having foundation leaders and others within the philanthropy field discuss issues and brainstorm ideas. “It’s not like most of the conferences that you go to, where it’s just someone on stage who talks and talks and talks,” one attendee told eJewishPhilanthropy about one of the afternoon “deep dive” sessions on Monday.

The gathering will feature a handful of plenary sessions, alongside a larger number of discussions and workshops mostly led by assorted Jewish foundations and funds. Tuesday will be devoted solely to site visits, with attendees choosing between traveling to southern Israel, northern Israel, Jerusalem, Haredi communities or sites in Tel Aviv.

Andrés Spokoiny, the CEO of JFN, told eJP ahead of the gathering that this was the result of feedback from previous conferences.

“Funders wanted to spend more time talking to one another, less time hearing from speakers. That is something that clearly came out of previous conferences, that funders really enjoyed that,” Spokoiny said. “The situation that we are living in is so unprecedented and so unsettling that people really need to brainstorm together on how to work and how to address the issues — what we need to do differently as a community.”

The 600 registered attendees include major philanthropists, leaders of foundations of all sizes, individual funders and resource development officials from large nonprofits. The overwhelming majority are Jewish, but some non-Jewish employees of Jewish organizations are also attending, as are some Jewish employees of secular foundations.

The conference officially kicked off on Sunday afternoon with an opening reception at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, featuring speeches by the conference chairs, Leora Propper and Stephen Bronfman, as well as actor and IDF reservist Yadin Gellman, who shared his experiences in the battles of Oct. 7, in which he was seriously wounded. 

Drawing occasional gasps from the audience, Gellman described treating some of the survivors of the attacks and finding the tortured remains of the victims, as well as the moment when he and his combat partner, David, were shot multiple times by a terrorist and when they were rescued by their comrades.

“We went through two medical [checkpoints] before getting sent to the helicopter and off to the hospital where they managed to save my life after seven hours of surgery. I woke up three days later and I asked where David was, and that’s when they informed me that David died, lying next to me in the helicopter on the way to the hospital,” Gellman said. 

“The 7th of October was the most horrific day for Jews since the Holocaust. And what we did as Jews was unite,” he said. “It is now our obligation to build up this country better, stronger and united. There are people in this very room that come from different countries, from all around the world, from different states, from different political and social agendas. But we put that aside and remember first that we are one nation. We are one nation that will stand together and will fight together.”

In his opening address, Spokoiny called for funders to “give boldly” and “dream big,” telling them that “this is the rainy day we’ve been saving for.”

He also recommended that Jewish funders “focus inwards,” noting that according to a recent study the majority of Jewish giving goes to secular causes. “We Jews rightfully pride ourselves on being universalists. We care about all humanity. But during this crisis, we saw that when push comes to shove, sadly, we are alone,” he said. “And that’s painful, but in a certain way, it’s liberating: The Band-Aid was pulled off, and now we know where we stand. So now is the time to live by the first part of that Hillel saying, ‘If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?’ And to be clear, every citizen of Israel, Arab or Jew, is part of us.’”

Following the opening session, the attendees split up for dinners in various locations, some of them featuring “keynote speaker” personalities — such as former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — but in a somewhat more intimate setting. 

The focus of this year’s conference is on Israel and the role that philanthropy can play in the aftermath of Oct. 7 and amid the ongoing political turmoil that the country has faced in recent years. “It’s a historical moment, and we needed to devote time [to it],” Spokoiny told eJP.

In addition to being in the minds and discussions of the attendees, the Oct. 7 attacks and ongoing war were also physically present at the conference, with many, if not most, participants wearing “Bring them home” dog tags, volunteers with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum selling memorabilia outside the main ballroom and the mobile museum ZUMU opening an exhibit of Oct. 7-inspired art next to the lobby.

But while Israel is the primary topic, it is not the sole one. The conference will also include sessions on combating antisemitism, how to take advantage of the current rise in interest in Jewish identity and about the “homelessness of liberal Jews,” Spokoiny said.

“We had one plan before the balagan [mess] of the [Israeli government’s] judicial reform, and then we had to change that, and then we had to change the plan again after Oct. 7, and then we needed to change it again because the needs from October were different from the needs in December, which are different from the needs of today,” he said ahead of the conference.

The plenary session on Monday evening did feature a big-name keynote speaker: Israeli First Lady Michal Herzog.

In her address, Herzog, who plays an integral role in the presidency’s civil society efforts, hailed the funders and philanthropic sector for their nimbleness in the early days following the Oct. 7 terror attacks, supporting a broad array of pop-up initiatives, but warned against continuing to do so.

“The boldness and creativity that were evident in unusual times will need to meet a willingness to work together as one attuned organ during the days ahead,” Herzog said. “This may mean putting aside for a time the type of personalized giving that can feel so satisfying so that we can jointly zone in on the broader strategic needs of Israeli society and respond to them together through synchronized efforts… In the interest of a strong Israel, we cannot abandon the organizations that make up the critical mass on the ground in favor of passing trends. No matter how important they may be, because they are what sustain Israeli civil society day in and day out.”

Following Tuesday’s site visits, the attendees will return to the Hilton Hotel on Wednesday for the final day of sessions — and schmoozing on the sidelines.