From Rallies to Capital to Hands-On: Federation and Israel

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This article originally appeared in "Cleveland Jewish News Celebrates Israel," published on May 2, 2008. It has been reprinted with permission from the Cleveland Jewish News.

The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland has been considered the central address of the local Jewish community for over a century. The organization has also supported the needs of Israel and its population for almost as long. But while Federation's support of Israel has been constant, the manner in which it provides that support has evolved over the past 60 years.

Table of Contents

  1. The Early Years
  2. The War Years
  3. The Post-War and Intifada Years
  4. New Era and Community-Building

The Early Years

"Cleveland was always a strong Zionist town," says Federation president Stephen H. Hoffman. Early leaders in the 1930s, like Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Ezra Shapiro, helped to galvanize community support for a Jewish state in British Palestine. Federation as an organization could not actively fundraise for this Zionist ideal, but, Hoffman notes, in 1932, Cleveland became one of the first Jewish Federations to combine its fundraising for local and overseas needs into one comprehensive campaign. It began to direct more money toward the needs of Jews in Europe and Palestine.

From 1945 on, Federation began to take a more active interest in overseas needs. The initial concern coming out of World War II was helping Holocaust survivors living in DP camps, Hoffman explains. Federation increased its annual campaign goals and began allocating still larger sums to overseas needs. Once the state of Israel was officially formed in 1948, Federation started sending a marked majority of its campaign earnings overseas to Europe and to the new Jewish state, Hoffman says.

vic gelb in Project Renewal city Neve Sharett.

The War Years

Fundraising was the primary way Federation helped the young state of Israel, funneling Cleveland money overseas through international organizations like The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

Federation had just closed its annual campaign when the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967. Leadership, already mobilized and in fundraising mode, immediately launched an emergency campaign. "There are horrendous expenses associated with a war, and the economy suffers a setback," Hoffman explains.

Federation's Israel Emergency Appeal rally in 1967.

The Israeli government is forced to divert funds to military and other war needs, most often cutting support of educational and social services. Federation poured its money into those social programs. "By U.S. tax law, we can't pay for anything the (Israeli) government is required to do. For example, we can't pay teachers' salaries," he adds. But Federation funds can go toward any auxiliary service programs that are independent of the government but that formerly received government grants. "We always help to absorb the shock."

While fundraising was Federation's main wartime function, the organization also sponsored large pro-Israel rallies for Clevelanders to express their support. "In '67, I was a teenager, and the war was over before you knew it," Hoffman says. "But in '73, I was 23 and a social work student assigned to the Jewish Federation of Wilmington, Del. When the Yom Kippur War wasn't over in three days, we started to get really worried."

The Cleveland Federation stepped up its fundraising efforts. The 1973 annual campaign closed in May, raising approximately $13 million. When war broke out in October, leadership moved up timetables on the 1974 campaign, launching it immediately, completing the entire effort by November, and raising an unprecedented $23 million.

The Post-War and Intifada Years

Hoffman joined the staff of the Cleveland Federation in 1974. "I always found a strong and deep concern for Israel among Federation leadership," he says. He was impressed by local community leaders' unique efforts to aid the Jewish state on their own in the days before Federation was operating on the ground there. After the Yom Kippur War, Mort Mandel joined with other international Jewish business leaders in Operation Independence, an effort to shore up Israel's economy.

Similarly, Max Ratner made investments in Israel by opening factories there. "They knew the best way to help Israel in addition to philanthropy was to create jobs," Hoffman says. "You had (several of Cleveland's) most generous families involved, and not just writing checks."

That (activism) set the tone; Federation harnessed this energy after Prime Minister Menachem Begin made an impassioned speech in 1977 to leaders of United Jewish Appeal, precursor to the current United Jewish Communities, umbrella organization of North American Jewish Federations.

Begin introduced Project Renewal, a partnership with the Israeli government through which American Jewish communities "adopted" and helped rehabilitate disadvantaged Israeli neighborhoods. Cleveland entered into a "pretty serious relationship" with Neve Sharett, a neighborhood in Tel Aviv, through Project Renewal, Hoffman recalls. From 1979-83, Federation raised several million dollars for Neve Sharett, nearly all of which went toward capital improvements and new construction rather than any form of programming. Among the Cleveland-funded buildings erected in Neve Sharett were a community center named for the Mandel family, a preschool supported by the Goldberg family, and a senior adult daycare center built by the Saltzman and Wuliger families.

Emergency campaigns remained common, as Federation raised money to help with social and educational needs falling through the cracks during the 1982 war with Lebanon. The organization was also active in efforts to help Soviet refuseniks in the '70s and '80s and Ethiopian Falash Mura in the '90s escape their oppressive homelands and make aliyah to Israel. "Federation was always a strong advocate for Israel's right to defend herself," Hoffman says, noting that the organization's Community Relations and Government Relations arms have frequently lobbied, spoken out, and circulated petitions in support of Israel. "We were deeply opposed to the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, the AWACS deal under Reagan. We lost that."

New Era of Community-Building

Federation and Cleveland's Jews have "become more engaged over the years" in Israel, Hoffman says. In the early days, only major philanthropists and community leaders would travel to the Jewish state for organizational meetings, and only government and agency officials would visit Cleveland as guest speakers, he notes. Today, Clevelanders of various economic, religious, social and organizational backgrounds are "on the ground" working to make Israeli life better, and all manner of "rank-and-file" Israelis come through town to exchange information with Clevelanders.

While Federation still holds rallies and conducts multi-million dollar Israel emergency campaigns during times of violence, the agency's focus is hands-on involvement. This began in 1995, when Federation's newly formed Overseas Connections Committee (OCC) entered into the Partnership 2000 program. Like Project Renewal before it, P2K created a partnership between an American and Israeli community, but the relationship is less about capital improvements than "people-to-people programs," explains current OCC chair Bill Heller.

Cleveland's P2K sister city and region is Beit She'an, near the Israel-Jordan border. Cleveland selected Beit She'an after visiting and evaluating several communities on a JAFI list because "the needs were great, and they were unlikely to be filled by anyone else because it required more than just money," Heller says. "Any city could give money (to those Israeli regions) that needed bricks and mortar. Here, we had a chance to really build a community."

Over the past 13 years of the Beit She'an partnership, Federation has created Community Builders, a program in which Beit She'anis learn civic leadership skills. (The concept of nonprofit lay leadership isn't familiar in Israel.) There's also Engliyada, which sends Cleveland volunteers to Beit She'an to teach English, and the Diller Ambassadors for Unity cultural exchange program for teens. Recently, Federation launched Youth Futures, which takes 15 Beit She'ani college graduates and trains them to mentor troubled elementary-aged youth from the region. All of these efforts are run out of Cleveland House, a community center built by P2K in Beit She'an.

Beit She'an is also part of the Federation-funded cross-border program that links Israeli and Jordanian politicians, businesses, and social service groups in the region. One unique and highly successful example of the cross-border program involves barn owls. Israeli farmers use barn owls to kill rodents that damage fields, so they have been teaching Jordanian farmers how to create owl nests and utilize the birds as well.

Federation is also responsible for PACT (Parents and Children Together), an acculturation program for Ethiopian immigrants. PACT takes "people from a primitive culture and prepares them for modern Israeli society: the language, jobs and school," Heller explains. PACT was launched in Beersheva and expanded to Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi. The program grew and yielded positive results, so other Jewish communities joined Cleveland in funding it, expanding PACT to 12 cities in Israel. Federation is now phasing out its contributions to PACT, as the program has become self-sufficient, operating with funding from private foundations and the Israeli government.

Another successful program begun by Federation that the OCC is now considering phasing out is ISHA, a healthcare program for Israeli (and some Arab-Israeli) women. ISHA started out focusing on women's physical health, but now the community center-based program touches on emotional wellbeing, spousal abuse, understanding sexuality, and teaching young girls about sex. Federation is awaiting approval from the Israeli Defense Forces to expand ISHA's offerings to female soldiers, Heller notes. Federation will fund ISHA's newer initiatives for the next three years.

"In many ways, the relationship (between Cleveland and Israel) is deeper (today)," Hoffman says. "At the same time, there's still that nagging feeling that the younger generation is not as connected to Israel as their parents and grandparents."

"The underlying thesis of our work (in Israel), beyond tikkun olam which all Jews are encouraged to do, is to engage the Diaspora," Heller adds. "We have to connect this generation to the state of Israel and what's going on Jewishly that they can relate to. That's not about fighting wars; it's about building a society."

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