Jeff Schoenfeld (Courtesy of JFNA)

The man allocating $800M in post-Oct. 7 donations to Israel on where the money goes

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The man allocating $800M in post-Oct. 7 donations to Israel on where the money goes

Jeff Schoenfeld (Courtesy of JFNA)

(JTA) – By now, Israeli charities that need funding for Oct. 7 recovery efforts know very well where to turn.

Jews in North America have donated nearly $800 million to local Jewish federations to support those efforts, a fundraising drive on a scale unseen for 50 years. About half the money has been allocated so far.

As co-chair of a body known as the Israel Emergency Allocations Committee, Jeff Schoenfeld helps oversee post-Oct. 7-related grant-making for the entire federation system. The committee is part of the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization, but includes representatives from a broad swath of institutions.

Schoenfeld and his committee have a staff of 18 in Israel helping review grant applications, which tend to get approved as long as they fit in one of four buckets: lifeline or emergency needs; mental health and trauma; economic aid; and community resilience and rebuilding. The committee also decides whether to grant the entire amount requested or some portion based on an evaluation of needs or whether other funding sources might be available.

As the media has reported, and as Schoenfeld has seen directly, the Israeli government did not meet the needs of Israeli civilians following Oct. 7. Philanthropy stepped in to fill the vacuum — a reality that Schoenfeld acknowledges but does not regard with criticism. Instead, he approaches it with a sense of duty and purpose.

A retired investment banker and past president of UJA-Federation of New York, Schoenfeld since Oct. 7 has found himself busy with a never-ending series of meetings about Israel’s recovery. The volunteer role is one of many philanthropic commitments on his schedule. He also serves on the boards overseeing the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Outside of the Jewish world, he is involved with an HIV/AIDS research organization, the foundation running NPR, and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Motivated by his experience as a closeted gay executive on Wall Street, Schoenfeld today is also an outspoken champion of diversity and inclusion in the business world.

Schoenfeld agreed to sit down on Zoom for a set of two interviews with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which have been edited, condensed and formatted to appear as a single conversation.

JTA: Many of our readers donated to support Israel through their local federation after Oct. 7. As one of the people in charge of shepherding their money, what message do you have for them?

Schoenfeld: It’s very clear that American Jewish philanthropy has been the entire human support system for Israel since Oct. 7. The government of Israel is still formulating its response. In the future, they may become a major player but to date, it has been philanthropy.

That sounds like a challenging responsibility.

Yes, one of the most difficult challenges is understanding where the government is going to show up, when the government is going to show up, and how much the government is going to show up. And many things are appropriate for philanthropy to support, but also, many things should be the job of the government of Israel. And we are always working through that calculus.

Can you give me a few examples?

The terrorists directly targeted farm equipment across the kibbutzim in the south. A great deal of the farm equipment was destroyed that day — burned up or stolen into Gaza. So Israeli farmers in the entire Gaza envelope are without the necessary farm equipment to get back into business. The key planting season of the year begins at the end of April. Time is of the essence.

The missing equipment is a $25 million need. Half of it will come from insurance proceeds and half of it is true philanthropy: Jewish Federations of North America [just recently] made a grant to cover all the remaining costs of the farm equipment so that new tractors and farm equipment can be purchased and delivered to Israel in time for farmers to have the planting equipment by the end of April.

That is a newsworthy announcement, but could you explain how it’s related to the government versus philanthropy question?

There is no greater call on government resources than supporting agriculture, which is the primary business in these communities in the south. And the government initially has said they’re not going to fund it. So philanthropy has to step in to do the job.

The last chapter has not been written. There still are ongoing conversations with the government about covering some of the costs, but, initially, JFNA has stepped up to say this is so vital for the economic recovery of the south, that we’re going to make this happen.

I didn’t anticipate you saying that. I thought you were going to say that the government simply moves too slowly for the demands of the planting season.

So far, they’ve said no.

Any other examples that come to mind, perhaps from earlier in the war?

The largest example would be that the government said initially that they were going to cover the needs of residents who live zero to seven kilometers from the Gaza border. If you were so unlucky to live eight, or nine, or 10, you were on your own, which means philanthropy played a huge role in supporting those who had immediate needs, who just didn’t happen to live zero to seven kilometers from the Gaza border. That’s tens of thousands of people.

Is there a risk that you’re giving permission to the government not to take action — incentivizing inaction? Is that a concern?

Absolutely. But we’ve taken the stance that we have people in need, and they cannot wait. And if the government is going to be too slow, or the government decides it’s not in their coverage agenda, we’re going to step in and do what’s needed. But there’s a level of frustration indeed.

Can you say more about the frustration?

So right after Oct. 7, I think in a very smart way, the government created a special authority called Tekuma to be the key architect and funder of the rebuilding of the south. But their territory is limited. Many communities that have been hard hit are not within the Tekuma planning agenda. And, of course, Tekuma has nothing to do with the north of Israel, which is also being very hard hit [Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, has been firing rockets at Israel’s northern region]. So it’s a limited focus.

Tekuma have been spending the last five months in a planning phase and they are going to be releasing their plan to the government on March 18. But today, little or no money has flowed from Tekuma to meet the immediate needs of the affected communities. The federations, and more broadly, global philanthropy, has played that role.

Following the interview, Schoenfeld sent an email seeking to clarify his sentiment: “I was thinking about our conversation just now. I would want my characterization of government inaction so far to be more of a fact statement than to come off as a harsh criticism. It will do no good to come down hard on a government that is fighting a major war.”

I want to talk about politics. The federations are a coalition where people share a general pro-Israel outlook, but there are lots of perhaps conflicting opinions on Benjamin Netanyahu, his proposed judicial reforms, the specifics of the war with Hamas, or even the occupation. What impact has recent political turmoil had on the committee’s work?

None. Because, remember, our focus is humanitarian aid and economic assistance. The politics do not intervene, really, in those agenda areas.

Have there been any difficult moments of disagreement among committee members about which grant requests to accept?

We’ve been fortunate to have very generous funding. And so we haven’t had to say no, more often than not. It isn’t as if we have limited resources, and therefore we have to turn down proposals that might otherwise be funded.

I want to make sure I understand that. As long as the proposal fits within your parameters, you haven’t had to say to anyone, “We love this project but we don’t have enough money to support you.”

That’s right.

I’m sure there are a lot of cases where the grant proposal fits very clearly within your mandate, and then it’s probably an easy decision. Have you gotten good requests that just don’t fit into your mission?

Some organizations want to go back and document all the atrocities that happened for historical purposes, the National Library in Israel, for instance. That’s really important work. But it’s not our lane. That might be somebody else’s lane. And I’m reluctant to make that too public.

In normal times, when you get a grant, there are all these reporting requirements attached. But since this is considered an emergency, have these requirements been changed?

The only thing that’s changed is the timeline. We still need to measure impact. We have a team that is working to provide as much data back to our federation community as possible on the impact of our grantmaking. So the responsibility to report back has not changed. The timing has changed. We realize we’re still in a crisis. So we’re giving them plenty of time to report back.

What are the challenges you expect going forward?

We know from history that trauma needs don’t always show up early, that there are latent needs to prepare for. We are partnering with the Ministry of Health to cover some of the initial trauma-related programmatic needs, with the understanding that the government is going to pick up 100% of the cost in year two and beyond.

We are also focused on the needs of soldiers as they come off of reserve duty and try to integrate back into family life, and work life. Those are really significant issues right now.

Workforce development would be another category. Many of the evacuees from the south and potentially from the north may never return to their home communities and they are reestablishing life in new locations. Many will need help acquiring new skills.

Sorry to be grim, but are you prepared for a scenario of Hezbollah entering the fray in earnest?

We absolutely are and we’re already addressing some of the needs of the tens of thousands who have been displaced from the north. We provide annual support to major partners like the Jewish Agency and JDC so that when emergencies happen, they’re ready and don’t have to build the firehouse while the fires are raging.

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