JFN: The Jewish Frayers Network

Collaborations among funders are never easy, especially when we are dealing with different languages, cultures and ideologies.

by Andrés Spokoiny

The biggest fear of an Israeli is not a nuclear Iran; neither is a rain of missiles from Hamas or Hezbollah. It’s definitely not the global economic downturn or global warming. The only thing that Israelis are terrified of is of being a “frayer.”

A frayer is a kind of sucker on steroids: The one who is taken advantage of, the one who leaves money on the table and the one who follows the rules to his own detriment.

Have you ever driven a car in Israel? I rest my case.

The biggest problem of driving in Israel is not that people are reckless, but that they don’t want to be “frayerim.” As in, “I’m not going to be the frayer who stays in the slow lane,” or “I’m not going to be the frayer who lets that car cut into my lane.”

Frayerhood, or the fear thereof, is one non-negligible factor influencing philanthropy in Israel. (“I’m a frayer to give to charity after I gave over 60 percent of my income in taxes? Am I a frayer to pay for what the government should be doing?”) But it’s certainly not the only one. The landscape of philanthropy in Israel is radically different than the one in America.

For starters, the legal and fiscal structure is drastically different. Israelis have a much heavier tax burden than Americans and their charitable deductions are limited and capped. There are no legal entities such as the American private foundation or donor-advised funds (most “foundations” in Israel, are, in fact, 501c3s). The legal factors, however, pale against the cultural ones: Israel was, until very recently, a socialist-inspired country. Philanthropy was looked down at with suspicion as the relic of an older, unequal world. Israelis felt that they made their share by spending their youth in the army and donation life and limb to the survival of the state. And last, but certainly not least, there was no real wealth to speak of.

All that has changed in the last couple of decades. A quiet revolution is taking place in the field of Israeli philanthropy. The start-up nation has generated a first generation of high-tech wealth and many of the once local Israeli companies have evolved into international conglomerates. Simultaneously, a robust civil society has emerged, replacing the once all-encompassing State.

Furthermore, many well-to-do Israelis now feel it is their responsibility to tackle some of the big issues affecting Israeli society. Slowly but surely, Israeli philanthropy has started to germinate and develop. Jewish Funders Network held its first Israeli conference in 2008; since then, the number of Israeli members in the JFN has tripled. Other organizations, like Sheatufim and JDC, are also invested in developing Israeli philanthropy.

The emergence of Israeli philanthropy does much more than “add more money to the pot.” It radically changes the paradigm of Jewish philanthropic involvement in Israel. Israel is today a strong country and although serious challenges remain, these are different than the ones facing an emerging state fighting for its life. Therefore, the paradigm of “nation building” is changing to “society building,” that is, to focus on specific societal issues that need to be improved. In this new paradigm, America is no longer the “rich uncle” that will come and “assist” Israel; rather, there’s a partnership of Israeli and American philanthropists to tackle specific issues and challenges.

Israelis bring not only their resources, but their in-depth knowledge of the issues and a new approach to philanthropy. The ‘start-up nation’ methodology has many principles that are applicable to philanthropy. The alchemy that emerges when both American and Israelis look at societal issues with fresh eyes is extremely rewarding for the society.

The challenges of this new paradigm are not to be minimized though. Collaborations among funders are never easy, especially when we are dealing with different languages, cultures and ideologies. JFN has launched a center for funders’ collaboration and thus is keenly aware of the many difficulties that arise when different approaches to philanthropy are brought together. Yet, those differences are a source of mutual enrichment. As the Israeli song says “things that you see from here, you don’t see from there.” That cut both ways.

I know that some, both in Israel and America, are frustrated with what appears to be a slow pace in the development of Israeli philanthropy. Without being complacent, I’d say that American philanthropy had almost 250 years to develop, since Benjamin Franklin opened the first community foundation. The incentives for philanthropy in America are far greater, and let’s not forget that when families like the Carnegies and Rockefellers created the first big private foundations, income tax did not exist. The conditions for accumulation of wealth in America were always more lenient and philanthropy benefited from that. While we work towards developing a robust field of local philanthropy, it is fair to cut Israelis some slack.

And yet, that quiet revolution must go on. And probably must cease to be quiet. The Zionist dream was not just for the Jewish State to survive, but to create a model society; a light onto the nations and the kind of state that Jews dreamed of for 2,000 years. We are the fortunate generation that can focus on that task. Conversely, Israeli ingenuity and resources can have an impact in the communities of the Diaspora as an increasing number of Israelis – both in government and private sectors – realize how inextricable Israel is from the Jewish people as a whole.

Last week, during its last annual conference, for the first time ever, JFN appointed an Israeli philanthropist, Avi Naor, as a co-chair of the board. Mr. Naor, an archetype of the ‘start-up nation’, was declared as the “leading Israeli philanthropist” and will in May receive the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the nation’s highest award. He will serve together with Dorothy Tananbaum, providing a concrete example of the type of partnership we aim to create in Jewish philanthropy.

This is an historic step, inasmuch as it signals a radical change in the way we see philanthropy in Israel and the Jewish world. As the first global tribe that ever existed, Jews need to leverage their international dimension and think more globally than ever. While America is, and will probably remain the center of Jewish philanthropy, there’s more to gain from an approach that levels the playing field and creates more opportunities for collaboration among partners.

JFN has its own frayer-in-chief now. But the most important change is that neither he, nor the hundreds of emerging Israeli philanthropists see themselves as frayers. Rather, they are full partners of a fascinating Jewish adventure for which we waited 2,000 years.

Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO at the Jewish Funders Network