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  • Andres Spokoiny

No More "Rich Uncle from America"

The biggest problem when driving in Israel is not that people are reckless, but that they don’t want to be “frayerim.” As in, “I’m not going to be the frayer who stays in the slow lane,” or “I’m not going to be the frayer who lets that car in my lane.”

Frayerhood, or the fear thereof, is one factor influencing philanthropy in Israel. (“I’m a frayer to give to charity after I gave more than 60 percent of my income in taxes?”). But it’s certainly not the only one. Israel differs from America in many ways, its fiscal and economic landscape is unique and there are many cultural issues that explain a different approach to philanthropy.

Israel was, until very recently, a socialist-inspired country. Philanthropy was viewed with suspicion as the relic of an older, unequal world. Israelis felt they did their part by spending their youth in the army. In any event, there was no real wealth to speak of.

Of course, much has changed. High-tech riches have spawned a nascent generation of philanthropists. Many well-to-do Israelis feel it is their responsibility to tackle the big issues affecting their society. Jewish Funders Network held its first Israeli conference in 2008; since then, the number of its Israeli members has tripled.

The emergence of Israeli philanthropy does much more than “add more money to the pot.” It radically changes Jewish philanthropic involvement in Israel. As the paradigm of “nation building” is supplanted by “society building,” the focus is on social issues that need to be addressed. The U.S. is no longer the “rich uncle;” rather, there’s a partnership of Israeli and American philanthropists to tackle specific issues and challenges. The ‘start-up nation’ methodology has many principles applicable to philanthropy. The alchemy that emerges when both Americans and Israelis look at societal issues with fresh eyes is extremely rewarding for the field.

The challenges of this new paradigm are not to be minimized, though. Collaborations among funders are never easy, especially when we are dealing with different languages, cultures and ideologies. Yet, those differences are a source of mutual enrichment. As the song goes, “Things that you see from here, you don’t see from there.” That cuts both ways.

I know that some, both in Israel and the U.S. are frustrated with what appears to be a slow pace in the development of Israeli philanthropy. My reply is that American philanthropy had almost 250 years to develop, back to when Benjamin Franklin opened the first community foundation. The incentives for philanthropy in the U.S. are far greater, and let’s not forget that when families like the Carnegies and Rockefellers created the first big private foundations, income tax did not exist.

The conditions for accumulation of wealth in the U.S. were always more lenient and philanthropy benefited from that. While we work towards developing a robust field of local philanthropy, it is fair to cut Israelis some slack.

The Zionist dream was not just for the Jewish State to survive, but to create a model society; a light onto the nations. We are the fortunate generation that can finally focus on that task. Conversely, Israeli ingenuity and resources can have an impact in the communities of the Diaspora as an increasing number of Israelis – both in government and private sectors – realize how inextricable Israel is from the Jewish people as a whole.

At its annual conference this March, the Jewish Funders Network for the first time appointed an Israeli philanthropist, Avi Naor, as co-chair of its board. Naor, who in May will receive the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, provides a concrete example of the type of partnership we aim to create in Jewish philanthropy.

This is an historic step. It signals a radical change in the way we see philanthropy in Israel and the Jewish world. While the U.S. is, and will probably remain, the center of Jewish philanthropy, there’s more to gain from an approach that levels the playing field and creates more opportunities for collaboration among partners.

Neither Naor nor the hundreds of emerging Israeli philanthropists see themselves as frayers. Rather, they are full partners of a fascinating Jewish adventure for which we have waited on for 2,000 years.

This article was published in Times of Israel.


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