Q & A

JFNA creates allocation committee as it prepares to distribute $500 million in Israel relief

CEO Eric Fingerhut says umbrella group plans to allocate most of the funds itself, working with groups on the ground and other foundations to determine how to distribute aid best

Days after the Hamas terror group committed a deadly terror attack in southern Israel last Saturday, killing more than 1,400 people, injuring thousands more and taking over 200 people hostage, the Jewish Federations of North America launched what it has described as a “historic” $500 million fundraising campaign.

As of this week, the umbrella organization has raised over $388 million toward that goal. In order to begin allocating those funds, JFNA has created an allocation committee led by longtime Jewish communal figures Jeffrey Schoenfeld and Stephen Hoffman, who will work with representatives of Jewish federations from across North America and with other philanthropic organizations with deep ties to Israel.

JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut spoke with eJewishPhilanthropy this week about how his organization is raising and allocating funds, as well as how the group is working to advocate for Israel in the U.S. and Canada.

Fingerhut, who was in Israel on Oct. 7, flew back to the U.S. to take part in solidarity events and to hold high-level meetings as JFNA prepared its response. He returned to Israel on Wednesday as part of a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: Welcome back to Israel. You’re here now as part of the Conference of Presidents’ mission?

Eric Fingerhut: Our team is here to help with the allocations of funds and we are also operating the largest political mobilization in our community’s history and we want to coordinate that with the Israeli government, and then finally, many federation leaders are going to start coming on solidarity missions as early as next week. So all of those reasons. But tonight I’m here with the Conference of Presidents.

JAG: We saw the announcement about the $388 million that has already been raised by JFNA. I assume the numbers have even gone up since then. But I haven’t seen as much about where the funds are being allocated. There was an initial announcement about $10 million in immediate funding. Of course, $388 million is a lot of money that can go to a lot of different places.

EF: It is a lot of money. Unfortunately, it’s going to get used up quickly. 

So first of all, to put that $10 million in context. We want to make sure that we have the most comprehensive, collaborative and really sophisticated process in place for identifying the needs as quickly as possible. Really in our history, this is an unparalleled crisis. But we also knew that [setting that process up] would take a couple of days and we didn’t want to wait to get some immediate dollars out the door. So our officers actually acted as our allocations group on the first day to approve the first $10 million that went out. Several federations also have ‘partnership’ cities or somewhere they can send some dollars quickly. And we estimate at least $50 million went out in the first week.

But what we also have done is we’ve now created an allocations committee. That committee is co-chaired by Jeffrey Schoenfeld, who’s a former chair of the UJA-Federation of New York, which — of course — is the largest contributor to the federation system. And he’s chair of our Israel & Overseas Committee. He’s also, by the way, a partner at Brown Brothers Harriman [investment firm] and just a very sophisticated businessman and Jewish communal leader. He’s also a board member of the Jim Joseph Foundation. I mean, he is eminently qualified. 

And the co-chair is Stephen Hoffman, who served for 30 years as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. And for three years in the middle of that [from 2001 to 2004], he was in my job [as president and CEO of JFNA]. And he’s now the chairman of the board of trustees of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation. 

So those two will co-chair it. The committee has leaders from across the system on it. The goal is to have people who have done allocations locally, who have been through it.

JAG: When you say locally, do you mean locally in Israel? Or locally within their communities?

EF: Locally in their federations. 

We’re also going to partner closely with a few other places that already do really extensive analysis [of Israel’s needs]. UJA-Federation of New York is one example. Also major foundations like Mandel, like the Schusterman Foundation, which was giving something like $150 million a year in Israel already before this crisis. They announced at our lunch [on Tuesday], that they were going to immediately add an additional $15 million. 

So we’re all gonna share that information and coordinate because the other thing that’s important to know, Judah, is that it’s not just about identifying the need, it’s also accepting which organizations are best at a particular area or are uniquely positioned [to help].

Often, three or four organizations in a crisis will say, ‘We see a need, we’ll meet it.’ And of course, what the donor wants is for us to make sure that of those organizations, that we’re picking are in the best position, have the experience, have the qualified personnel in place to address a particular issue.

Another example of why this process is so important to the donor is that, again — thank God — money is coming in from lots of sources for important causes. And it may be that there is a need that’s a very legitimate need and there’s the right organization, but — Baruch Hashem — they got funded.

So for example, we’ve been long partnered with the Jewish Agency on the Victims of Terror Fund—

JAG: Which last week received a $5 million donation just from Yuri and Julia Milner. 

EF: And now they are going to have the largest expenditure that the fund has ever had by several orders of magnitude. We’ve already added $2 million to it, but as you pointed out, they received $5 million from one source. Keren Hayesod is prioritizing it in their fundraising. 

Even celebrities [are focusing on it]. We saw Jennifer Aniston [posted on Instagram] about the Victims of Terror Fund, which is fantastic, right? So when we allocate, we’re able to say, of course, this is a priority, but if right now, that need is being met or is halfway met, then we can help finish it but we can also focus our donor’s funds on other things. 

So these are the types of questions that an allocation process needs to encounter. But we also need to do it quickly and with as little bureaucracy as possible. We’re not asking organizations to file proposals or requests. We’re just getting the bare minimum that we need. Obviously, we have to do our due diligence. If you’re sending somebody $100,000, there’s a fiduciary responsibility to make sure those dollars are not somehow being lost or misdirected. It’ll also be transparent. We will always report on what we’ve done. 

JAG: How much of this half a billion dollars is being distributed by JFNA specifically and how much of it is being allocated by different federations? When UJA-Federation of New York said it’s distributing $22 million in emergency grants, is that being counted from the JFNA’s $500 million or is that a separate, additional effort?

EF: It is counted as part of the collective. 

As a ballpark [estimation], you’ll remember that with Ukraine, we raised about $90 million for emergency funding. If I’m not mistaken, roughly 50% of that was completely unallocated funds, meaning it was allocated by our internal process at the JFNA. And about half either donors directed it themselves or a local federation said we have a relationship with this particular organization. 

In this case, we think it’s gonna be much, much more than 50% that will be undesignated [by the donors]. We’ve been in conversation with all of our federations. They all understand this is moving so quickly. And they know that an individual federation can’t have the capacity to keep up with it all on the ground. And then, of course, as we get to the rebuilding process, I think you’ll see more of a situation where people have a relationship with a certain city or a certain group, and they’re gonna be more involved in those individual relationships.

JAG: In that regard, is there a certain breakdown of how much JFNA is looking to give toward immediate needs versus how much toward reconstruction?

EF: The committees have not yet had that conversation. I expect it’ll happen soon, likely next week. I would expect that some amount be held back for rebuilding and rehabilitation, which by the way, it could already start soon. I mean, it does not necessarily have to be the case that the war has to be over before certain rehabilitation starts. 

We know that it’s not just a long-standing policy, but a strong social value that after a terrorist attack you rebuild as quickly as possible, in order to not let the terrorists win, to get back to normal life as quickly as possible. 

This, of course, will be so hard. This is harder than anything that’s ever happened before, but the principles remain. We know there’s already efforts to begin the planning and the rebuilding of certain communities and certain neighborhoods. And so the idea that some funds would go to those causes, I think you can count on the fact 100%, but whether that happens in the next work or the next month, those kinds of things are still to be determined.

JAG: And on the political side, you mentioned to me before that political support is the main thing Israeli leaders have asked you for. Can you expand on what you will be coordinating with the Israeli government?

EF: It’s critically important that our leaders and the federations… that they mobilize, that they stay in close touch with our civic leaders. And not just the initial rallies. We organized 120 rallies and we had many politicians and mayors and governors. But you have to keep it up. 

So for example, this new story about the hospital in Gaza. The misinformation is getting out there. We need to counter that at every level, not just college campuses, but at every level.

It’s hard to believe, but not every local leader knows that President Biden came to Israel today. There are local Democrats who could be pulled into the anti-Israel left but [won’t] if they knew what President Biden said or what House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said [on Tuesday]. 

And so our job is to mobilize the community.