Right now we are in between two Jewish holidays, Purim and Pesach, both of which emphasize the obligation to care for the needy and–as far as Pesach goes–to welcome the stranger. On Purim, one of the main religious obligations is matanot l’evyonim, gifts for the poor, and during the Seder we read from the Haggadah: kol dichfin yetei v’yeichal; kol ditzrich yetei v’yifsach– All who are hungry let them come and eat; all who are in need, let them come and celebrate Pesach.
Both holidays celebrate a great miracle of Jewish survival: Purim celebrates our salvation from Haman’s edict and Pesach celebrates our redemption from slavery. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that particularly at times of happiness and gratitude; we must remember those who are in need and less fortunate.
The philanthropic tradition is not new to Israeli society. For decades, we were accustomed to giving to national projects such as the LIBI Foundation, which supports the social-service role of the army, such as education for underprivileged youths while they serve in the army, and assisting new immigrants to integrate into society through their military service. As a child, I remember many national campaigns that raised funds for different causes such as kids at risk, the blind and deaf, the disabled, the Jewish National Fund, Yad Sara and more. Every high school student is expected, as part of the school’s requirements, to volunteer a certain number of hours per week. Retirees very often volunteer at hospitals or with kids at risk, and all youth movements are heavily involved in volunteering. Annual recognition ceremonies to outstanding volunteers are held and promoted through the media.
Financial philanthropy has existed in Israel since the end of the nineteenth century during the period of the Zionist yishuv (pre-state Jewish settlements), when philanthropists contributed to the establishment of the Jewish settlements and supported the housing and wellbeing of the pioneers. The last decades have given rise to a new model of philanthropy in Israel. There are now a group of very wealthy Israelis who have made their fortunes in the electronics, high-tech, real-estate and other advanced industries. These philanthropists play a major role in supporting social initiatives, as well as other areas such as science, culture, education, and social welfare. Whereas at one time, a socialist Israeli government was responsible for such matters, the change to a free-market economy has made it necessary for private citizens to financially support these areas. Thanks to these local philanthropists, Hebrew University researchers report that money coming from donations outside of Israel is declining. More and more, Israel can take care of itself.
Recently, one community near Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, adopted the American Jewish Federation model and created an Israeli charity named Takdim (precedent). Their goal is to shift the Israel-Diaspora relationship and to send some of the money raised to Jewish projects abroad – including to the United States. The new Takdim federation plans to allocate 70 percent of the funds for local projects and 30 percent for national and international projects. Since Israelis are not comfortable with the idea of giving to intermediary groups rather than directly to a particular cause, it will probably take time before more communities adopt the Takdim model. In the meantime, our ability to connect with world Jewry through content, shared values, and the vision of peoplehood, is both comforting and a source for pride.
Vice President, JCC Association Israel Office