by Abigail Pickus

During the Second Lebanon War, Russian billionaire Arcady Gaydamak set a new precedent of philanthropic emergency support. After appearing on the scene, he built tent cities for some of Israel’s most vulnerable citizens – without waiting for the green light from either the government or the organized Jewish world.

With the threat of war in Israel once again looming on the horizon – or, just as likely, according to experts, a natural disaster such as an earthquake – voices from Jewish philanthropies are calling for a pre-orchestrated, strategic plan to prepare to meet Israel’s needs – before disaster strikes.

“Right now we’re heading into really uncertain times, but the one thing that is certain is that Israel may be confronted with a war and when we are under attack is the worst time for philanthropies to figure out what to do,” said David Gappell, Director of the Schusterman Foundation-Israel.

That is why individual funders, foundations and philanthropic organizations must take stock of the lessons learned from past wars in Israel and, under the guidance of the Israeli Government, figure out an effective and efficient game plan in the calm before the storm, according to Gappell.

By all accounts, the Second Lebanon War was a wake-up call for both Israel and the world Jewish community. Stymied by disorganization and red tape, the Israeli Government and its ancillaries, the federated and organized world, lagged behind and failed to respond effectively to citizens’ needs. As a result, private foundations received spotty and sometimes conflicting information, which hindered their ability to offer support.

“During the Lebanon War in 2006, the government wasn’t organized and neither was the third sector and as a result, Israeli paid a high price,” said the director of a major philanthropic organization with an office in Israel.

Not surprisingly, the setting was ripe for wealthy individuals, like Gaydamak, to take matters into their own hands. The only problem was this Rambo-like approach angered the government while exposing its weaknesses, according to key players in the philanthropic world. It also set an unhealthy precedent of working outside of the government.

According to a 2011 report issued by the Reut Institute and the Israel Trauma Coalition, Guidelines for the Philanthropic Response of World Jewry to a Crisis in Israel, the Second Lebanon War “exposed several key weaknesses in Israel’s society and its security and foreign policy approach. One of them was the gross unpreparedness of Israel’s home front, which affected a significant area and a large population in Northern Israel, whose plight mobilized numerous NGO’s, volunteers and philanthropists, many from the Jewish world.” While Operation Cast Lead in Gaza “demonstrated evident and significant improvement in the capabilities of the government to respond to a crisis …there has not been a systematic effort to tap into the resources and commitment of civil society i.e. non-governmental organizations, philanthropy and the business sector,” says the report, which was supported by the UJA Federation of New York.

All this makes Israel “vulnerable to a national crisis, in which a large area and population will be affected by a natural disaster or war,” the report continues.

Reut’s recommendations include developing a “civil resilience network” of individuals, communities, businesses, nonprofits, and philanthropists that “have the capacities and resources to act both independently and together during crises” and instilling a “culture of preparedness,” across all sectors of society including the government, businesses, nonprofits, and philanthropists. They also recommend re-examining the traditional channels for philanthropic support among world Jewry during a crisis, such as the emergency campaigns led by Jewish Federations of North America and its counterparts across the globe, and distributed by the Jewish Agency (JAFI) and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

“The bigger principle here has to do with a huge issue in Jewish world today: Do you work through the government and organizations like JDC (The Joint Jewish Distribution Committee) and JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel) or do you work directly with Israeli civil society organizations?” asked Gidi Grinstein, founder and President of the Reut Institute.

“Philanthropists face this during times of crisis. If, for years, your relationships are built directly with grantees and not through centralized distributions agencies and suddenly in crisis you’re asked to reverse this creates resistance, which is why all of these issues are better thought about ahead of time.”

In light of this, in its recommendations the Reut report advises major givers in Israel to divide their grantees into three major categories: those essential for organizations in times of crisis, hybrids that can change their mode of operation to become relevant in crisis, and those non-relevant organizations that can be scaled down or cut out entirely during a crisis. “If you are a donor and you have a grantee that is essential to an organization then their funding is secure, this is key, but what we know is that often in crisis the leaders of the organizations instead of serving their missions go out to raise more money,” said Grinstein. While the Reut report challenges the status quo in many ways, it has yet to create any waves in the Jewish world.

“That’s the paradox,” said Grinstein. “The whole issue is that when there is no crisis, few people are interested, but when the crisis is here, it is too late.”

That is why Gappell of Schusterman-Israel feels the time is ripe for funders to develop a concrete game plan in the event of crisis.

“The Reut plan is a very positive document, but it begs a question of everyone working together to put in place plans that are more operational and of a higher resolution because the actual response itself needs to be further fleshed out,” he said.

For its part, the Government of Israel has already made efforts to mend past mistakes by establishing the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), part of the Ministry of Defense, that is responsible for preparing Israel’s Home Front for different emergencies. This is accomplished by directing and coordinating between emergency organizations, government offices, local authorities, and other relevant institutions.

NEMA works with an estimated 100 ngos from around the world, the majority of which have offices in Israel. They also convene regular round tables that bring together representatives of these ngos with key members of Israel’s administration, according to a NEMA representative who would not speak on the record.

They were active during Operation Cast Lead, when they made sure that ngos spread their resources evenly instead of over-supplying some cities while neglecting others. Specific needs during the war in Gaza included supporting homebound elderly and those with special needs and preparing and improving public shelters.

During the Carmel Fire, one important task NEMA fulfilled was keeping ngos and foundations informed on the situation and any needs.

The bulk of NEMA’s prep work happens during periods of calm when they can gather information and assess any gaps and needs within society that are either unnoticed or outside of the government’s purview.

This is where ngos, and especially private foundations, can easily step in with support since besides having the resources on-hand, they often have little or no red tape to cut through and can make decisions quickly.

To streamline the process, NEMA recently sent out detailed questionnaires to participating organizations and foundations asking their specific areas of interest.

They have also been running emergency drills for potential scenarios.

It’s crucial, but also abstract work, considering if and when Israel finds itself in a war, no one can say now which part of the country it will affect or how it will impact its citizens. War with Iran, in particular, brings with it a whole new series of frightening unknowns that Israel has never faced.

Because of this, many of the foundations contacted for this article either declined to be quoted or would only say in broad terms that they are working with NEMA.

But Grinstein of the Reut Institute says relying on NEMA alone is not enough.

“This centralized approach is only effective during a limited crisis. The moment there is a national crisis, any kind of centralized system will collapse. That is why we believe in an orchestrated decentralization. The big debate we have with NEMA is that they are locked in a paradigm that is irrelevant and can collapse because they can only centralize the management; they don’t have the means to deal with a national crisis. It’s a fundamental debate,” he said.

International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) founder and President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein may have seized upon a way to both work with the government and establish independent relationships with organizations and municipalities in Israel.

To begin with, IFCJ has deep pockets. It raises $120 million a year – $75 million earmarked for Israel – and has millions of dollars at any time available for an emergency, be it an earthquake, evacuating Jews from danger and bringing them to Israel or a war in Israel, according to Eckstein.

Donors are mostly American Christians, according to Eckstein.

With that kind of financial nest egg, IFCJ has millions of dollars at their disposal at all times, ready to aid Israel during a crisis.

“The truth is, we’re in this very favorable position. Money is not a problem. We can give whatever is needed, if it’s $1 million or $5 million, we can get it there within 48 hours,” said Eckstein.

But Eckstein said that they are working now, before any crisis, to donate whatever is needed so that in times of emergency, the equipment and infrastructure are already set in place.

“We operate in 170 cities in Israel and many are in periphery in the North and South, and even though we don’t have a special fund for war, we already have worked out all the contracts with each city and have the funds put aside for an emergency, like war, so that we will be able within 24 hours to get money to each of the cities to help their unique needs,” said Eckstein.

During the Second Lebanon War, for example, needs included everything from flashlights and air conditioning in the shelters to food, water and diapers and even supplying hospitals with MRI machines.

After the war, IFCJ worked with then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to build over 1,000 shelters for Israeli citizens. They also donated new fire trucks in the North after the Carmel Fire.

IFCJ has been working closely with NEMA, which Eckstein praised as restoring some order to a previously chaotic situation.

“The bottom line is there was and is today not sufficient coordination among the different groups that are responsible for emergencies [in Israel],” said Eckstein, “but even though the government is still not so organized, the situation today is far better than the situation after the Lebanon war. So if there is, chas vachalila (God forbid), another war, we don’t have to worry about the question of food and water because we’ve met with the government and found out what they do need.”

“The situation is just as compelling for an earthquake since everyone says it is not a question of if, but a questions of when,” Eckstein continued. “So all of these questions are appropriate not just for war, but also for something like an earthquake or a massive fire. We really need an emergency plan. The key question is: If you have to evacuate people, where can you bring them that is safe? The government is working these things out.”

The Rashi Foundation, which served as a major force during the Second Lebanon War, including coordinating efforts among a few organizations and foundations to supply food and run youth education programs in Israel, are also actively working with NEMA, IDF Homefront Command and other government ministries, to prepare for any emergency. “After the lesson from the Second Lebanon War, we learned that there was a call for more coordination and collaboration between the nonprofit sector and foundations. That is when we started coordinating everything with NEMA,” said Ronit Segelman, Vice President of Partnerships for the Rashi Foundation.

During Operation Cast Lead, for example, Rashi set up a headquarters in Beer Sheva and was in daily contact with NEMA, the city’s mayor and other government officials.

They also served as a source of information for foundations outside of Israel.

“There was a lot of interest from foundations that don’t have representatives in Israel,” said Segelman. “They wanted to give but didn’t know where to give or how much and since we have over 80 different philanthropic partners we work with, mostly in the U.S., after each of these deliberations we issued a news alert to all of our partners where we informed them about any unmet needs. We also told them when there were no needs because sometimes there was more of a wish to give than there was a need.”

Segelman is optimistic going forward.

“We learned a lot of lessons and believe the entire third sector, both service providers, volunteers and foundations, are more educated and more equipped to work with each other and the government. Definitely the coordination and dialogue continues,” she said.

For his part, Gappell feels that foundations are not going far enough in terms of getting into gear for an emergency situation.

“Based on my discussions with colleagues I have yet to meet with foundations who have a high resolution plan in place in the event of a national emergency, meaning, they know very precisely what they will be doing and how to mobilize funds and resources at a moment’s notice,” he said.

Since Schusterman Foundation-Israel works specifically with the victims of child abuse, they have approved a budget to help a variety of frameworks prepare if and when disaster strikes. Tapped to lead the initiative is veteran humanitarian activist and relief worker Henry Elkaslassy, whose credentials include coordinating international response and relief programs on behalf of the Kibbutz Movement – most recently in Haiti as well as the “Leading Up North” mission of American students who restored destroyed neighborhoods after the Second Lebanon War. Following the Carmel forest fire, Elkaslassy directed the relief mission to rehabilitate the Yemin Orde Youth Village.

For Schusterman-Israel, Elkaslassy will organize a group of students to work at a grassroots level to prepare very detailed contingency plans based on different scenarios to help the foundation’s target populations, according to Gappell.

“We have one of the best people for the job to coordinate this work,” said Gappell. “My hope is we never need to use them, but if we do then our foundation will have a good sense of what needs to be done and what it costs and in the end, it will benefit everyone.”

“At the end of the day, it is not a Schusterman plan, but a plan for the State of Israel,” Gappell continued. “My hope is that this model will inspire other foundations to make similar, high-resolution preparations.”