Post 1: Flight on the Wings of Jewish Philanthropy

[eJP note: This post, by Gidi Grinstein, was originally published on May 13, 2008, as part of a series on Philanthropy in Israel. With this year’s Jewish Funders Network conference taking place in Israel, we thought it would be timely to rerun the series.]

This series of blog posts deals with non-Israeli Jewish philanthropy in Israel with the objective of making a contribution to its effectiveness and relevance.

When I started working on this project, my wife, friends and colleagues asked me why I care enough to spend so many hours on a topic that is out of the focus of my professional work. My answer was that I feel a debt to the community that has made my dream possible and that, en route, this may turn out to be a contribution, however small, to Israel’s prosperity, to Israel-Diaspora relations and to world Jewry.

This series too, like other parts of my blog, is written from the perspective of a Jew, a Zionist and an Israeli, in that order (for elaboration, see the post, A Link in the Chain). My national identity as an Israeli is founded upon and deeply informed and influenced by my Jewishness. In the context of Israel-Diaspora relations, it means that I would like to see the Jewish community in Israel making a more significant contribution to Jewish life in the Diaspora and Diaspora Jews playing a greater role in shaping Israel’s future and identity. Philanthropy is a very important platform for both. I will write more about that in the second post of this series titled “Why Should We Care?”

But there is a personal angle too. I am a person who has been able to realize a vision and a dream – the Reut Institute – because Jews from around the world that I had never previously met believed in me and supported the cause that drove me. My journey has brought me countless encounters with exceptional generosity of spirit, trust, time and money by lay leaders, rabbis, communities and organizations, as well as by individuals who simply care about the Jewish world and Israel.

My journey of Reut has been a formative one. When I conceived of the idea in late 2002 I had no financial resources. So, in early 2003, I flew to New York and started meeting the few people that I knew at the time asking for their support. Almost five years later, by the end of 2007, and after an estimated 2,000 meetings and pitches, Reut will have raised a total of almost four million dollars. We are supported by nearly 150 individual donors and family foundations primarily from Los Angeles, New York, the Bay Area and Orange County. We have had other donors and supporters from places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami and Washington DC, as well as from France and London. I don’t know if this qualifies me as a good fundraiser, but it has certainly been an experience that deeply enriched my life.

I have known from history that philanthropy has been essential for the success of Zionism. In fact, the Zionist project, sort-to-speak, has been financed by families, individuals and foundations from outside of Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel. There is no other historical equivalent that I am aware of. This should be of no surprise. Philanthropy has been an essential part of Jewish life and giving to the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael seems to have always been central in the life of Diaspora communities.

However, as my acquaintance with this special world of generosity grew, so did my awareness of the gaps between perception and reality. For example, while on the Diaspora side there is endless care, passion and commitment compounded by often bewildering philanthropic generosity, on the Israeli side there is often ignorance and lack of appreciation and respect. While a billion dollars is a very significant sum, its overall impact on Israeli economy and society is not recognized. While Diaspora Jewry is investing heavily in extending a welcoming hand, many Israelis will not join your synagogues or community centers even when we live overseas.

But things can be different. I believe that there is large untapped potential for leveraging your generosity towards strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations, towards greater prosperity and strength of Israel and towards enriching Jewish life around the world. But this would require fundamental change and adaptation.

This series comprises of the following:

First, the challenges: Post numbers 3-6 will deal with four consistent and powerful trends that are marginalizing the role of Jewish Philanthropy in Israel. They are: the ‘decline of Jerusalem’, the disconnect between Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli center, the rise of Israeli philanthropy and the diminishing marginal impact due to the growth of the Israeli economy.

Second, the response: The following eight posts (posts 7-14) discuss the outline of the overhaul that may be in dire need. It begins by calling for a qualitative response that would focus on leveraging greater impact of existing dollars. I then offer the TOP 15 Vision as an example for an overarching context to inform philanthropic giving in Israel.

Posts 9, 10 and 11 discuss the need for the heavy hitters to come together to promote the agenda of Jewish philanthropy in Israel, to standardize expectations and to address the inefficiencies of small nonprofits.

Finally, in post number 12, I call for a greater focus on institution building and management, for developing a philanthropic ethos and for focusing on government and market failures where philanthropy can make it biggest impact.

Third, philanthropic leadership: This final post (number 15) deals with the concept of philanthropic leadership. The immediate association of ‘philanthropy’ with ‘leadership’ is often taken for granted but should be checked. Not every philanthropic act amounts to leadership and not every leadership act of a philanthropist involves giving money.

Before I conclude I would like to make a few caveats: First, I am not an expert on philanthropy, yet I have my own experience to draw from, as well as many encounters with Israeli benefactors, benefactor-wannabes, donors or would-be donors. Second, I will try to avoid sharing broader historical, political or cultural thoughts that are inescapable when one asks: What in our culture makes it possible for someone like me to arrive from a distant Eretz Yisrael and to be received with such open arms? Common answers such as ‘a compelling vision’, ‘people give to people’ or ‘a good pitch’ are hardly adequate. Third, in spite of these posts addressing the largest institutional and individual givers, they are relevant to many smaller philanthropists. Finally, although these posts are based on my experience with philanthropy in Israel primarily by American Jews, I believe that some of its parts may be relevant to any philanthropic operation anywhere by anyone, to Jewish philanthropic giving not only in Israel or to any giving in Israel not only by American Jews.

The overall picture and the bottom line of this series it that Jewish philanthropy in Israel is facing new challenges and opportunities. Avoiding the former and seizing the latter requires a shift of values, perceptions, priorities, patterns and habits. This series is designed to modestly contribute to this process. I look forward to the feedback.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of the Reut Institute.