JFNA surpasses $500 million goal in campaign for Israel, plans to keeping going as ‘needs just keep growing’

Head of organization’s Israel office says allocation committee looking to be ‘efficient and effective,’ finding areas where it can do the most good; more than $111 million distributed so far

The Jewish Federations of North America has raised nearly $554 million for its emergency campaign for Israel in the wake of Hamas’ massacre and ensuring war, surpassing its initial goal of $500 million, the organization announced on Thursday.

The campaign was launched days after the Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel, in which terrorists killed more than 1,400 people, injured thousands more and took over 220 people hostage.

“When we launched this campaign, we could not possibly imagine how vast the needs would be to meet the urgent humanitarian crisis, as well as the longer-term effort to rehabilitate and rebuild,” JFNA’s chair, Julie Platt, said in a statement. “It is clear that our original goal of $500 million will not meet these needs and we will continue our efforts as long as is necessary. So much has changed on the ground since we set our initial goal just five days into this conflict, and we are only starting to comprehend the enormity of the task.”

Rebecca Caspi, the director of JFNA’s Israel office, said the organization has no new goal in mind as it continues to encourage donors to continue giving.

“We haven’t set a new goal because the needs just keep growing so we’re just going to keep raising money,” Caspi said. 

The organization has so far allocated more than $111 million, with more than a quarter of it — $30 million — going to the Jewish Agency for Israel, with most of those funds going toward its Victims of Terror Fund, which has issued an unprecedented number of grants in recent weeks. A Jewish Agency spokesperson told eJewishPhilanthropy that the fund has already provided NIS 4,000 ($980) grants to 2,780 people and is preparing to issue more than 1,400 more. (Prior to the Oct. 7 attacks, the fund had issued roughly 9,000 grants in its 20-year history.)

The other primary recipients of the JFNA grants have been: regional councils and municipalities in southern Israel, which received a total of $9.5 million; the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which received $6.4 million; Brothers and Sisters for Israel — an offshoot of the Brothers in Arms protest movement, which has since pivoted to focus on disaster relief — which received $4.1 million; the Magen David Adom ambulance service, which received $3.4 million; and the Israel Trauma Coalition, which received $3.4 million. (The full list of recipients is available here.)

Asked about the decision to support the Brothers in Arms movement, which until Oct. 7 was one of the main protest groups against the Israeli government for its now-stalled judicial overhaul, UJA-Federation of New York’s representative in Israel, Itzik Shmuli, told eJP that neither politics nor the appearance of partisanship were a consideration. The only factor, he said, was the work being done by the organization’s so-called “Civil Emergency Headquarters,” which has been organizing volunteers, donations and aid distribution throughout the country.

“We support the Civil Emergency Headquarters because we are very impressed by the organizational capabilities and their ability to mobilize. We are supporting that effort,” Shmuli said, noting that the organization is now directly partnering with organizations that it would have led protests against before the war broke out. 

“The world has been turned on its head. Everyone is working together in the same ‘war room.’ Finally, Israelis are coming together because they understand that this is about our existence,” he said. “So many groups that you wouldn’t have thought could work toward the same cause are now working together, shoulder to shoulder.”

Caspi also noted that the Brothers in Arms organization has emerged as a major player in the relief effort. “They are rapidly learning about, thinking through and addressing evolving needs,” she said.

JFNA has not yet allocated funds directly to northern Israeli committees, despite these coming under increasing rocket and anti-tank guided missile attacks from Lebanon, resulting in the Israeli military ordering them to evacuate. A JFNA spokesperson said that the organization was planning to issue grants to northern communities in the next round of funding.

Caspi added that while the northern communities have not yet received direct funding, they are being helped through allocations to national and regional efforts. To wit, the town of Metula may not have received funding, but its displaced residents are getting help through funding that has been allocated to the Israel Association of Community Centers, which is coordinating much of the efforts to provide assistance to evacuees across the country.

The $554 million raised comes at a time when American Jewish giving to Israel has been on the decline. Even before the campaign surpassed its goal, it represented an unprecedented (by some metrics) philanthropic mobilization effort.

David Heller, national campaign chair, called the campaign and community mobilization “a generation-defining moment.”

The money raised thus far has come from direct donations to JFNA and from individual federations. The UJA-Federation of New York has raised more than $118 million, representing nearly a quarter of the JFNA fund, and other big-city federations have also raised tens of millions of dollars.

The emergency campaign was adopted unanimously by JFNA’s board, which is representative of federations around the U.S., at a meeting earlier this month. JFNA said the funds will particularly benefit Israeli terror victims with increased needs such as the elderly, those with mental impairments, children at risk, lone soldiers, and Arab, Bedouin and Haredi groups. 

Several organizations, including the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Hillel International, the JCC Association of North America, National Council of Jewish Women, Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies and Prizmah have joined in JFNA’s campaign effort. 

Of the $111 million, just over $60 million was allocated by individual federations, more than half of that by UJA-Federation of New York, while roughly $50 million has been allocated by JFNA as a collective. Last week, JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut told eJP that he expects this to change going forward, with JFNA playing a larger role in the allocation process.

JFNA created an allocation committee to distribute the funds. Longtime Jewish communal figures Jeffrey Schoenfeld and Stephen Hoffman are leading the committee, and will work with representatives of Jewish federations from across North America and with other philanthropic organizations with deep ties to Israel.

Caspi said the allocation committee, working with her office and with specific Jewish federations that have long-standing relationships with affected Israeli communities and relevant organizations, is seeking to be both “efficient and effective.”

She said they are looking to both identify the greatest needs and coordinate with other philanthropies to ensure that those needs are not already being addressed. For instance, she said, the funding to Magen David Adom did not go toward purchasing new ambulances. “Other donors are doing that. Instead, we funded the replenishment of critical supplies,” she said.

The goal, Caspi said, is to find “the places where federations are best positioned to make the greatest impact. That’s where our team is most deeply engaged now.”

Haley Cohen contributed to this report.