The Jewish Holidays and Philanthropy: Understanding our Collective Responsibility

By Shula Mozes

The fall season’s Jewish holidays are a time for prayer, introspection, charity, family, and many other important values and priorities. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are judged and do everything within our power to be inscribed in the Book of Life. After experiencing the gravity of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), Sukkot is a special time to rejoice with our loved ones.

Yet in Israel each year, there are numerous young people who do not enjoy a support system during this so-called “season of our rejoicing.” Thousands of Israelis graduating the welfare system are left with no structure or guidance once they turn 18. This, together with their dysfunctional family background, almost guarantees that they will not reach their full potential.

In addition to the important concept of individual accountability during the fall’s Jewish holiday season, we must also bear in mind the expression of “kol yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh” – all the people of Israel (or all Jews) are responsible for one another. Indeed, we have a collective responsibility to care for the most vulnerable among us. In Israel, this means underprivileged young adults from ages 18-25. This is a critical period in a young person’s development – pre, during and post mandatory army service – and it is certainly not the time for society to abandon them.

Collective social problems like this one require collaborative – not individualistic, nor self-serving – solutions. To address Israeli society’s most pressing needs, it is time to start a critical discussion in the world of Jewish philanthropy about the direction we have been taking and the importance of cross-sector cooperation.

Jewish philanthropists must work together in mutual respect and with a common agenda. We must focus on identifying and investing in effective grassroots initiatives with proven records of accomplishment that are led by the smartest professionals. We cannot be distracted by trying to create groups of funders with diverse interests and modes of operation, focusing solely on return on investment and establishing non-sustainable, donor-driven agendas.

Sixteen years ago, the Mozes Wolfowitz Foundation, my family’s philanthropic vehicle, made a major entrepreneurial investment and launched the “Lamerhav” program to help address the aforementioned challenge of underprivileged young adults in Israel. The vision is simple – allowing these young adults to break the cycle of poverty, and become contributing and active members of society.

We did not wonder where the other philanthropists were. We did not point fingers at one government or another. We simply began using the ingenuity of talented people who were committed to our vision. To date, we have helped hundreds of young adults without family support to build their lives.

Later, when the Israeli prime minster launched a cross-sector roundtable on young adults, we understood that this was an opportunity to take the knowledge and expertise we had accumulated at Lamerhav and use it to create system-wide impact. Our allegiance was to the young adults that we support, and not to a particular organization or group.

We sought to bring other philanthropic investors to the table, especially local Israeli philanthropists. We proceeded to map the various organizations dealing with this key population group, discovering a sizable number of players focused largely on specific facets of the issue at hand: young adults lacking family support. All of these groups worked with the same entrepreneurial spirit of their founders and funders, and only viewed the problem from their own narrow angle.

The subsequent challenge was to create a common professional language and hone in on areas of need. As our language developed, we were able to define the ignored areas and what was happening to the young adults as they passed from one organization to another, many times falling through the cracks.

To meet this challenge, we worked together with the Gandyr Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to form a working group of all the organizations active in our field. Today, the forum has grown to 23 organizations. After 16 years of focused activity by our foundation and others, our work has grown in strength, capacity and impact. The Israeli government recently pledged 100 million shekels ($28 million) per year to its new Yated initiative, in order to address the problem we are trying to solve.

Yet new challenges lie ahead. How do we create a true sense of involvement, commitment and partnership between philanthropists, government and social-minded NGOs or public initiatives? How do we attract the widest range of domestic Israeli and Diaspora funding in order to achieve the desired results? How do we ensure sustainable programming with long-term impact?

I do not have all the answers. But I challenge my fellow philanthropists, social activists, and business and government representatives to an open, frank and respectful dialogue. By understanding our collective responsibility – the principle that all the people of Israel are responsible for one another – we will be effective agents for change.

Shula Mozes is Founder of Lamerhav and Chair of The Mozes Wolfowitz Foundation. Lamerhav is the primary activity of the Mozes Wolfowitz Foundation and acts as the only program in Israel that focuses support on underprivileged young adults within the ages of 18-25.