Is the Israel crisis inspiring rising donations to federation campaigns

While many Jewish federations nationwide are reporting that violence in Israel is spurring higher-than-usual donations for this time of year, some federations, including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, say they don't believe that is the case.

Donations are up at the JCF, but Ed Cushman, the campaign director, does not attribute it to the situation in Israel. Instead, he sees the Israeli situation as one of many factors — along with increased needs at home.

The East Bay federation has set up a special fund to raise money for Israel, but Ami Nahshon, the executive vice president, does not see the crisis as spurring additional donations on a major scale.

Nonetheless, throughout the country, increased donations are arriving at federations even though the umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities, has not launched a special campaign to respond to the crisis.

And there are no nationally produced fund-raising materials that focus on the conflict or explain exactly what new needs Israel will face as a result of the conflict with the Palestinians, according to UJC officials.

The collapse of the peace process coincided with the launch of many federation campaigns.

Early on, leaders in such communities as Palm Beach, Fla., and Chicago reported that donors were increasing their gifts as a way of showing solidarity with Israel.

"There are people throughout the country who are anxious to demonstrate their connection with Israel, and obviously the most tangible way of doing that is through their gifts," said Robert Schrayer, the UJC's national chair for campaign and financial resource development.

The campaign increases come as many secular U.S. charities are reporting declines from the economic slowdown and forecasts of a recession.

All the large-city federation campaigns are doing better than last year, and the combined campaigns of 189 federations across North America have raised about $22 million more this year than last year at this time, Schrayer said.

Cushman said the S.F.-based JCF was doing better in its fund-raising than at this time last year, but he believes it could be the result of a number of factors.

"We have been talking a lot about why we need a breakthrough campaign, but it's just as much to support local needs," Cushman said.

The East Bay federation set up a specific fund in light of the situation in Israel, Nahshon said, and it has raised so far approximately $50,000.

"This has been special gifts in response to the crisis in Israel," Nahshon said, "divided between social services and Jewish-Arab coexistence."

Some federations, like the UJA-Federation of Greater New York and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, are emphasizing the conflict in Israel when they solicit donors.

During its Super Sunday, a telethon in early February targeting middle-class donors, potential contributors "were told one way of showing solidarity with Israel is to give to UJA-Federation," said Paul Kane, senior vice president of the New York federation.

New York has also focused on the situation in Israel by hosting numerous briefings with Israeli leaders, organizing a "solidarity" mission and highlighting the conflict in its direct mail solicitations, Kane said.

The New York federation campaign has raised $90 million so far, $5 million ahead of last year at this time. Five thousand more people have contributed compared with last year at this time.

Kane attributes some of the success to the situation in Israel. But he also said the campaign has been increasing for the past few years, something he credited to the federation's "creative and resourceful" strategies, such as increased outreach to the baby boomer population and small programs in which people study Jewish texts together and have holiday celebrations.

Los Angeles federation fund-raisers are also focusing more on Israel.

"We talk a lot about Israel and about the need of the campaign to help support Israel's social services during this time of stress," said Bill Bernstein, the federation's executive vice president for financial resource development.

Since launching the campaign in January, Los Angeles has raised $12 million, compared with $9 million at this time last year, Some 2,000 more donors have given money this year.

Other federations, like the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, which is in Denver, say they have not changed the pitch significantly.

While they are also enjoying increases, they are emphasizing Israel only as one of many things the federations fund.

"Because all these issues are swirling around us, obviously it has an impact on individuals, but we're sticking to message," said Bobby Gast, president and CEO of the Colorado federation.

That message is one of "people in need, education and the elderly whether in Israel, overseas or in our own community," Gast said.

"We're not raising money on the basis of crisis," he added.

Nonetheless, Denver — which runs its campaign from November to July — has raised $3.9 million, compared with $1.8 million at this time last year.

Fifteen percent of the donations are from new donors, and veteran donors are averaging a 20 percent increase.

The Denver-Boulder area, which has an estimated 63,000 Jews, has one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the nation. In recent years its federation campaign has increased by 10 percent each year.

Atlanta, with an estimated 77,000 Jews, is also one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities.

The Atlanta campaign, which has raised $12.2 million since January, is telling donors about the impact the recent violence is having on Israel's economy, which in turn is expected to affect social service needs there.

But, said Linda Selig, the campaign chair, "there hasn't been a single focus" in the campaign.

Israel is "a big part, but I wouldn't say it's the predominant part," she added.

Instead, she attributes much of the success to the fact that the federation is now experimenting with designated giving, offering donors the opportunity to specify where some of their money will go.

It is unclear how the increased dollars federations are raising will be spent.

A portion of funds raised by local federations go to overseas needs.

Individual federations decide how much they will keep for local needs and how much to designate for overseas.

Presumably, federations that have seen their campaigns grow will allocate more to Israel.

"We don't make allocations until after we complete the campaign," said Bernstein of Los Angeles. "If needs in Israel are greater, then I'm sure our community will respond."

The UJC, meanwhile, has not yet outlined specific new needs in Israel that result from the conflict.

However, many observers expect that additional American Jewish dollars to Israel, which primarily fund social services and immigrant absorption, will be needed to compensate for the country's conflict-related economic downturn.

More details are expected in the coming months, and, according to Schrayer, there is talk of developing a special campaign specifically for Israel's new needs.