balancing acts

With donations surging into Israel aid, U.S. nonprofits pivot their fundraising

Organizations look to adapt end-of-year drives, highlighting how the war and rising antisemitism around the world affect their work, while not appearing 'tone deaf' to the profound needs in Israel

Since the Oct. 7 massacres, Jews across the Diaspora have stepped up their donations for aid to Israel. In less than a month, the Jewish Federation of North America said it alone had raised over $600 million. But even as American Jews give additional donations to Israel, the needs remain the same for Jewish communities across the United States.

“Nonprofits receive at least 40 to 50% of their revenue from fundraising during the last quarter of the year,” Reuben D. Rotman, president and CEO of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “So the timing of this war is really complicated… If this trend continues into November and into December, we are very concerned with what the impact will be on local fundraising.”

At the same time, he said, “everybody is very sensitive to the need to ensure that Israel gets the support and the resources it needs, because Israel is at war right now and the priority must be to ensure safety for Israel and its citizens.”

Because of this, some NJHSA-connected agencies are delaying appeals. Others are rephrasing appeals to explain the ways the conflict abroad is affecting programs in America.

“You don’t want to be fundraising in a manner that appears tone deaf to what’s going on in the community at the time,” Rotman said. “But you also don’t want to not send your appeal.”

Demand for mental health services skyrocketed alongside a rise in antisemitism following the Oct. 7 attacks. Holocaust survivors are being retraumatized by the news coming from Israel and in the streets of America, where flyers with the faces of Israeli hostages are ripped down by individuals professing to be human rights advocates.

“We were already dealing with a mental health crisis in this country,” Rotman said. “We were already dealing, in particular, with a youth mental health crisis, and now, the youth mental health crisis has exploded.” With antisemitism escalating on college campuses, both students and Jewish professionals require extra support.

Adding to the need, there has been an influx of Israelis to American Jewish communities, some without visas allowing them work or attain benefits. Many need assistance with food, housing, clothing and schooling. This, on top of the services they provided prior to the attacks.

“The person who needed help finding a job before October 7, still needs help,” Rotman said, quoting a colleague. “And the family who was food insecure before October 7 is still probably food insecure. All of those needs continue. In some areas, they’ve increased.”

Agencies connected to NJHSA depend on individual donors, but they also depend on allocations from local Jewish federations. Nora Gorenstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, told eJP that her federation’s partners shouldn’t be concerned.

“Our community, Jewish and non-Jewish, has been very supportive not only of our regular ongoing needs but of the current crisis in Israel,” she said. Recent donations, across the board, have exceeded their annual campaign.

“More people are coming out of the woodwork,” she said. “What we’re seeing is a lot of new donors, who haven’t been engaged in our work regularly or haven’t been engaged in a while, recognizing that this is the moment to reengage.”

Jewish federations are using this moment to cultivate community. Just being together is important in this moment, she said. Her organization has been holding listening circles and parlor meetings. Federation events unconnected to Israel now begin with a recitation of “Hatikvah.”

Even though this crisis is the worst the federation has seen recently, it’s not the first. The federation system rallied behind Ukraine and Israel in the past through wars and rocket attacks. “I do think that we were as prepared as anyone could be for this because nobody expected it,” she said.

After the attack, Gorenstein’s agency increased security at Jewish organizations throughout Western Massachusetts and worked closely with media to ensure news wasn’t biased.

Even though resources are finite, Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, told eJP he believes donors will “stretch themselves in a time of trouble. It’s not as if we’re playing a zero-sum game. We’re playing a game where people will do what they can for Israel, and then we’ll see a lot of people double down on their own communities as well.”

Just as NJHSA and Gorenstein’s federation have been nimble in this fraught moment, Jewish day schools have also pivoted curriculum to stand with Israel.

It’s during crises when many people invest in their heritage, Bernstein said. “It’s at times of attack and fear, that people remind themselves of why it’s important to have a connection with Judaism and the Jewish community… There’s a solidarity and inclusion and it’s possible that what the whole Jewish community will see in the next months and years is people reestablishing connections or strengthening connections that they had.”

While it’s easy to get pessimistic, he said, donors have stepped up support in past crises. Jewish schools were worried that donations would go down during the pandemic, but instead they increased.

Even if some donors didn’t have the funds to support both Israel and their local community, Bernstein said, he had faith that other donors would fill in the gaps, making sure everyone’s needs were met because they understand the importance of a Jewish education to kids in the diaspora. For schools in smaller communities, Prizmah would reach out to donors who allocated their funds nationwide.

The effect of the war on fundraising won’t be seen until months down the line, Barry Mael, senior director of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Synagogue affiliations and operations, told eJP. But he’s optimistic.

Congregants supporting Israel only makes the diaspora community more bonded, he said. “Most synagogues hope that by encouraging and working as a community to support Israel, that’ll strengthen the community [in America]. If people feel more connected to their community,” Mael continued, “then people will give more to their community.”