Donations to New Israel Fund are not a good usage of synagogue funds

Click photo to download. Caption: The homepage of the New Israel Fund website. Credit: Nif.org screenshot.

 

By Ronn Torossian/JNS.org

When an individual makes a choice to give to a charity, the impact it might have on the grantee can be big (depending on the size of the gift), while the impact on the donor is limited to an individual or family. Of course, the value to the giver is immense, psychologically and financially. When a non-profit organization gives, however, that gift is speaking for an entire donor base, its membership, and leadership—no matter what size gift is granted. 

This is why the grants given by the New Israel Fund (NIF) to groups that are hateful to Israel are so alarming. The majority of people who subsidize the NIF are often well-meaning individuals who probably are not aware of the extent of the damage NIF’s funds have caused up until now, and will cause going forward. These people give to an agency such as NIF with the expectation that their funds will go to causes considered worthwhile and helpful, in accordance with the ideals of the donor. 

It is a little different when a house of worship allocates charitable funds. When individuals give to a synagogue or temple, they generally expect those funds to help keep the building up, pay the rabbi and staff, and buy prayer and research books for its library. It is not uncommon for these funds to go toward childcare and youth programs, Shabbat kiddush, and charitable causes that fall under the category of “gemilut chasadim”—acts of loving-kindness. Yes, houses of prayer donate to the needy, including food, clothing, shelter, and human services. It is the fitting kind of philanthropy for a house designed to fill the void of the ancient Jewish Temples in Jerusalem.

Still, there are those synagogues and temples that do feel the need to expand on those charitable themes and often give to issues that represent some of the ideals of the congregation. They give to schools, yeshivas, and Israel-related groups on both sides of the new 1967 borders, and some even seek out issues dealing with social justice themes. 

Social justice charitable giving and houses of worship are not the most common ways for congregants’ money to be allocated, but it happens. When it does, the expectation is that the cause is just and is in sync with the majority of the people who call themselves members of that synagogue.

In looking at the 2013 Annual Report of the New Israel Fund, it appears that nine congregations have given to the NIF. Congregants of Temple Beth El of Santa Cruz, Calif.; Tzedakah Hevra at Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass.; Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in Wisconsin; Kehila Chadasha of Bethesda, Md.; Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia; Temple Beth Avodah of Newton Center, Mass.; Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass.; Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco; and Temple Israel in White Plains, N.Y., should be aware of their synagogues’ “social justice” giving.

The NIF spends about $27 million annually, and most goes to organizations that work to undermine Israel’s military or seek to bring Israeli leaders and officials to The Hague to face war-crimes charges. The NIF funds lawsuits that seek to defend Palestinian terrorists’ interests over those of Jewish victims and their families.

In the Shurat HaDin - Israel Law Center’s recent $218 million victory in a United States federal court, an all-black jury found the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guilty and culpable for acts of terrorism. At the trial, NIF stalwart attorney Michael Sfard was a witness for the PLO. Never mind that the jury found that the PLO treated terrorists as employees and paid them handsomely for their murderous acts, and would give bonuses for higher death tolls during attacks.

Within at least one of the nine synagogues donating to the NIF, there may be a more nuanced understanding of what the NIF represents. Temple Beth Avodah of Newton Center gave to NIF for 2013, yet some of the synagogue’s senior leaders signed a letter criticizing Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs over his former role as an NIF board member, saying that Jacobs “does not represent the pro-Israel policies cherished by Reform Jews.” Maybe they had an epiphany.

Is the role of a house of prayer to see Israelis and Israel harmed, or to protect those who have caused Israel harm? No!

Ronn Torossian

Of course, there is also the matter of Jewish support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the tricky game that NIF plays. On its website, the organization claims it is against BDS, yet there are organizations it funds that today are diligently working on academic and product boycotts of Israel. The NIF’s website also cleverly masks its support for BDS while explaining how it does not endorse that approach. You see, while claiming it is opposed to boycotts, the NIF states on that same webpage that it does not oppose them when the efforts are on the side of the 1967 borders that NIF believes is not a part of Israel. It is semantics.

Where a house of worship should stand on Israel is, of course, up to the congregants. The nine synagogues mentioned above all appear to stand for Israel and claim to be Zionistic in their hearts, and most say a prayer for Israel at their Shabbat services. All of that may run counter to their support of a charity that has done so much harm to Israel’s wellbeing. 

Maybe these synagogues’ boards need to be more transparent with their members.

Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, one of America’s largest independent public relations firms. He writes extensively on Jewish and Israel-related topics.

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Posted on March 8, 2015 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S..