What Do a Wake-Up Call, a Reporter and the Next Generation Have in Common?

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-or- Israeli Philanthropy from the Perspective of an Israeli Philanthropist

By Avi Naor

A conversation I had with an American colleague, a board member and donor for one of Israel’s leading cultural institutions, made me realize the dialogue between the Israeli- and non-Israeli philanthropists and activists was at a critical crossroad: She told me she wants to discontinue her involvement in Israel because, once again, she found herself on a board that included no Israeli donors. “Where are the affluent Israelis, and why don’t they match our contributions,” she asked me indignantly.

For me, that encounter was the final straw. For many years now, I’ve been an active social investor. I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds, of Jewish philanthropists from across the globe, and time after time I’ve sensed the same resentment: Such claims often stem from frustration, but I always felt the personal commitment and the common destiny underlying our work together.

The realization that a lack of Israeli partners could lead foreign donors to be less involved wasn’t the only thing that threw me off balance.  I also knew that if we grew apart, it would have serious implications for the Jewish world as a whole.  It would impact Jewish identity, Jewish education and our continued shared responsibility to address Jewish needs worldwide. It also reaffirmed my belief that the existence of the State of Israel as a strong and exemplary society is a top priority not only for us who live there, but for all Jews.

A just, pluralistic and democratic Israeli society, which is attentive to diverse groups, including minorities, is a crucial condition for raising and educating the next Jewish generation to be proud and inspired by their origins.

In the decades following the establishment of Israel in 1948, we fought for its physical existence and developed the infrastructure that would ensure its viability while the entire Jewish world stood firmly behind the young developing country. In recent years, the focus of the struggle may have shifted, but it’s no less challenging.  Perhaps the challenge is even greater because a physical homeland that lacks a spiritual and cultural essence and an identity based on social justice, has no right to exist. The social, ethical and moral threat is no less serious than the security threat, and maybe even more so. The growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots, the social polarization, and the inequality in education must be addressed.

The continued existence of Israel, while meeting such standards, is a shared interest, for future Jewish generations worldwide, as well as ours. We all stand to gain from it and we need again the unity of the Jewish world to work together to face those challenges.  

We, the Israeli philanthropists, should be the first to assume the responsibility.

Up until 15 or–20 years ago, Israeli philanthropy was limited in scope because few families had the financial capability to be social investors and donate generously. In recent years the situation has changed, thanks, among other things, to Israel’s flourishing high-tech industry.

In Israel today, there are hundreds of philanthropists who invest their time, passion and money to strengthen and further develop our society.  Our local brand of philanthropy is based on a combination of social commitment and leadership, which means taking risks and tackling new and often controversial areas.

Our investments are targeted at producing a broad social impact.  We are seeking to create effectiveness and sustainability and to leverage our relatively limited resources so they will generate change in the long term.

What roles have we taken upon ourselves?

Since philanthropy has the capacity to produce boundless energy, it should conduct a dialogue with the different sectors in Israeli society.  It should encourage the public sector to fulfill its traditional obligations as legislators, planners, implementers, auditors, and arbiters. It should be an advocate and encourage the government to act, but not replace it.  Philanthropy should urge the media to cover and challenge the existing public discourse. It should motivate academia to conduct research and devise innovative ways to enhance our lives. Philanthropy should encourage the corporate sector to embrace shared values.  And it should facilitate the nonprofit sector‘s efforts to promote diverse goals creatively, and incentivize citizens to get more involved in community-based initiatives.

The Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving in Israel, which I founded in 1997, is only one of a growing number of initiatives that have adopted this approach to philanthropy, thereby expediting the formulation of solutions to critical social problems. 

It is also philanthropy’s responsibility to identify and raise issues that are not necessarily on the top of the public agenda, such as social justice and activism, human rights and Jewish pluralism. These topics are vital to all of us and can empower us as Jews, in Israel and around the world.

People frequently challenge our special role. I remember one occasion 10 years ago, at the first conference I organized after founding Or Yarok. The purpose of the event, held at the Hilton Tel Aviv, was to change the perception that car accidents are “force majeure” that cannot be prevented, in order to encourage the relevant agencies to stop skirting the issue and take a proactive stand, and to heighten public awareness.

A huge investment was made in the conference. The prime minister, cabinet ministers and many other dignitaries were invited. The conference received wide media coverage and, thus, achieved its goals.

A short time later, I was approached by a reporter who asked me sarcastically: “Don’t you think it would have been better to invest the conference budget in painting more crosswalks?”  My reply was that it’s the government’s job to paint crosswalks; my role is to facilitate a discourse regarding the policy and to encourage public discussion. Many years have elapsed since then, but the core problems remain unchanged. I assume you confront them as well.  So we have our work cut out for us.

For the most part, my own story reflects that evolving change. Today, there are many social investors like me. In JFN Israel alone, there are nearly 100 multi-generational families.

The “Committed to Give” initiative that was founded two years ago has brought together approximately 20 Israeli philanthropists who are spearheading a change in local private giving.

We are happy that the overall Israeli  philanthropic funds received in Israel last year, is equal to the non- Israeli funds, however, we believe that the potential and the economic situation in Israel justify the involvement of more Israeli participants and we do hope to see this scope continues to grow.

Like any social change, it will take time. Although some Israelis are still deliberating whether to jump on the moving train, it’s already left the station

Many of us have benefited from the example set by Dov Lautman, who was a true leader and shaped the new and evolving Israeli philanthropic community. Although, Dov is not with us since November 2013, his legacy will guide us for generations to come.

I anticipate that the scope of Israeli philanthropy will grow if we continue cultivating it in the right direction.

Your participation in the ongoing discussion about what kind of society we want is crucial, including our role and how both of us can benefit from it.  After formulating the vision, I hope we can join hands and implement it in a way that will be relevant to the future generations.

Let’s get to know each other better, exchange debate and ideas, invest in common projects, and share successes and disappointments.

If we manage to create the kind of society we all want for the State of Israel, our future generations will thank us, and we’ll know that we’ve made a genuine contribution to tying our destinies together.

“It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

The Ethics of the Fathers, 2:16