Started a year before to help people move to Israel, La’aretz Foundation pivoted to help individual families affected by Oct. 7

Shelly Harel Pitman, co-founder and executive director of the organization, tells eJP that she didn't think the foundation had much of a future, but Oct. 7 gave them renewed purpose and 'since then, we’ve kept growing'

If you’d have asked Shelly Harel Pitman on Oct. 6, 2023, she’d have told you that her fundraising days were on pause. The most important thing in her world was her 2-month-old baby. On Oct. 7, everything changed in an instant. 

Having already formed the nonprofit La’aretz Foundation one year earlier with her husband, Mike Pitman, the couple — both of them from Israel — quickly decided to fundraise for victims of the terrorist attack and subsequent war effort. 

“We didn’t know yet what we were raising for but we got a lot of support in those first days,” Harel Pitman, 30, recalled in a recent interview with eJewishPhilanthropy. Seven months later, La’aretz has provided hundreds of Israeli families with direct deposits to help rebuild their lives after the devastation caused by Hamas. 

In La’aretz Foundation’s first year, it had helped some 100 individuals and families either make aliyah or move back to Israel for humanitarian reasons — including cancer patients, the elderly and families facing bureaucratic or economic challenges. “It was just me; I’d just had a baby and it was very hard to compete with all of the big nonprofits,” Harel Pitman said. “I wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back to it.” 

But in the days after Oct. 7, though, Harel Pitman went right “back to it,” she said, with assistance from a small team of volunteers. Their first project was to provide financial support for army reservists flying back to Israel. “This was the immediate need we felt Israel needed,” she said. “We financed entire planes and flew 600 reserves to Israel.” 

Just one week later, having already raised $350,000, La’aretz — Hebrew for “To the land” — was on to its next project, which is ongoing — helping families who lost their main breadwinner or lost their home on Oct. 7. The group provides each family with a direct deposit of $2,500 to their bank accounts. “We felt it was a unique approach and the easiest way to donate to the kibbutzim affected,” Harel Pitman told eJP. “We decided to cut out the middle man, minimize bureaucracy and just give the donation directly to the families.” 

“Since then, we’ve kept growing,” she continued, noting that “donors really like the direct approach. Each donor receives a report of the families that they helped… This is La’aretz [now]. We know we will never go back to being just aliyah and return to Israel. We feel that this direct support to families is needed forever. Each year, we will choose a new project. But we are currently still in the immediate trauma of Oct. 7 and the war.” 

One recipient is Tomer M., a father of three whose children’s mother, Neta, and her partner, Shai, were murdered at the Nova music festival on Oct. 7. Tomer told eJP that the financial support “has eased the burden of immediate financial worries, allowing me to focus on healing with my children, ages 10, 13 and 14.”

“Stepping into the dual role of both mother and father led to the loss of my job [of] the past 24 years, placing the entire physical, mental and financial burden on my shoulders,” he said. 

The group, which has grown to have several employees, has hosted a number of fundraising events in New York City and Miami, including “The Women Behind the Reserves” photography exhibitions at Eden Gallery in SoHo and Miami Beach to benefit women on the front lines and behind the reserves of the Israel Defense Force’s elite search and rescue Air Force Unit 669. 

“Our goal was to support hundreds of families of reserves of Unit 669,” Harel Pitman said of the March 26 and March 28 events. “We hope to finish this project and support them all, and after that we will go to the next unit and the next unit. Our projects are very simple. We’re supporting families affected by the Oct. 7 attack and reserves by direct deposits.” 

La’aretz is also the official fundraiser for The Nova Music Festival Exhibition in Lower Manhattan, a four-week presentation modeled after the one in Tel Aviv, in collaboration with entertainment executive Scooter Braun. The installation, designed to honor the 364 young people killed when Hamas rampaged through the Nova festival on Oct. 7, opened on April 21. 

A majority of the $3 million that La’aretz has raised since October has not come from events. Rather, the group has three main private donors. Harel Pitman declined to share names, but said that one is well-known on Wall Street, and another “is just a nice lady from upstate New York whose whole life mission is to support Israel and she had never found a way to do it.” 

“Ninety percent of our donations come to us, not us reaching out to them,” Harel Pitman said, expressing that, perhaps surprisingly, it’s easier to fundraise as a small, lesser-known organization than to be tied to a larger one. “Like [during the] COVID-19 [pandemic], the [Israel-Hamas] war has shifted the fundraising world,” she said. “A lot of donors pulled out their donations from big organizations because they weren’t getting the feeling of immediate support, and they decided instead to support smaller organizations that draw a big impact. We are falling in this category.”

Both Harel Pitman and her husband grew up in Israel, but separately moved to New York City in their 20s, where they still reside. In 2019, a director position at the Israeli Consulate first brought Harel Pitman to Manhattan, where she eventually met her husband, a real estate developer. The two married in 2022, the same year La’aretz was founded. Harel Pitman said that another draw of La’aretz is that it’s run by Israelis. “That’s the uniqueness of La’aretz. We know how things are in Israel. And we knew it would take time for Israel to get it together and support victims,” she said. 

“With me and my husband as the founders and managers of La’aretz, and us being Israelis, it’s just very unique because we know what Israelis really need,” Harel Pitman said. “We’ve been in the army, we’ve been in schools in Israel and know that to be Israeli is hard. It’s a sacrifice to live in Israel… and we are here to support Israeli families where they need it and to fill the gaps of where Israel can’t reach. We do it fast with no bureaucracy… for us it’s like a startup.”

She continued, “To find a foundation run by Israelis that gives direct support allows each donor to feel like they really helped support a family.”