New Israel Fund to celebrate 20 years of social activism

Twenty years ago, a Mill Valley couple had a crazy notion — they would create an organization to solve the social problems in Israel that even Israelis wouldn't tackle.

The couple, Jonathan Cohen and Eleanor Friedman, incorporated themselves as the New Israel Fund. Their mission: to strengthen Arab-Jewish and Sephardic-Ashkenazic relations and to address women's issues in the Holy Land.

No longer a crazy notion, their left-wing fund-raising organization has spread its influence throughout the nonprofit sector in Israel. It currently supports a staff of 100 throughout the world who seek, fund and train Israeli grassroots activist groups.

"We have put on the public agenda in Israel some of the social issues that before were neglected," said Norman Rosenberg, who directs the New Israel Fund, which is now based in New York.

"Before…most of the [non-governmental organizations] in Israel were tied to political parties, religious institutions and hospitals."

In celebration of its success, the New Israel Fund will mark its 20th birthday Sunday, Jan. 24 in San Francisco with a daylong public symposium on the issues it holds dear to its heart. The event, "A Changing Israel, A Changing Partnership," will take place at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Cohen and Friedman are no longer working with the fund-raising organization, but the pair and several other founding members will attend the symposium to reminisce on how it all got started.

Having worked for a national network of small foundations, the couple decided to marry their fund-raising expertise and concern for Israel. Both had family there and Cohen had lived in Israel during the late 1960s.

"There were a fair number of donors of our age who were feeling alienated from support of Israel, and who were not feeling as positively toward the federation-UJA structure as did their parents and grandparents," Cohen said.

The two decided to try tuning in disenchanted Jews to Israel's social problems.

Incorporating themselves in 1979 "was our idea of a way of engaging people in Jewish philanthropy," Cohen said.

"Based on our [foundation work] experience, we realized that small amounts of money could create a lot of change."

Alvin Baum, board vice president for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and Naomi Lauter, former regional director of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, accompanied Cohen and Friedman on a 1979 fact-finding mission to Israel to assess the need for such a fund.

As a result, both Baum and Lauter became founding members and trustees of New Israel Fund.

Baum said the '79 mission was an eye-opener for the group, particularly for him; it was his first Israel trip.

"There were a lot of blind spots. People didn't realize in the '70s that there was a need for battered women Jews as well as Arab women," he recalled.

Many of the 75 organizations were comprised of a sole individual pursuing a cause that no one else would, Baum said.

One such activist was a man who wanted to protect Bedouins being ousted by the Israeli government from their desert habitat and placed into settlement communities.

While New Israel Fund is historically apolitical, it has never shied away from backing causes that contradict the government's agenda. Last Sunday, for example, it ran a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on American Jews to bombard the Israeli Embassy by protesting any Knesset bills that would set back the cause of religious pluralism.

"It's important that we have a watchdog of the government there," the fund's Rosenberg said.

Bay Area Jews took a bold stand from the start. During New Israel Fund's first year, the community handed over nearly $80,000. The donor base and contributions have been climbing steadily ever since with last year's national contributions hovering near $18 million.

The steady cash flow has helped Israel's nonprofit sector grow from 2,000 organizations in the mid-1970s to some 25,000 today, Rosenberg said. New Israel Fund has broadened its focus to include a variety of social issues, including religious freedom, the environment and citizenship assistance for new immigrants.

"This work is going to go on somehow whether we have a good [funding] year or a bad year. It's not glamorous work. It's in the trenches, " Rosenberg said.

The Jan. 24 symposium will feature briefings by prominent Israelis, including Knesset member Yossi Beilin, on the status of women, socioeconomic gaps, the environment and Jewish-Arab coexistence. A special town hall meeting on religious freedom will be facilitated by an American-Israeli panel of scholars and leaders. New Israel Fund's Rosenberg will deliver closing remarks.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.