July 26, 2007
Israeli, Iranian and Russian immigrants learn the American way of giving
When the Los Angeles Jewish community staged a rally to show support for Israel during the conflict with Lebanon last year, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch was pleased by the numbers, but bothered by the fact that there were not many Israelis there. |
"You would have thought 30,000 Israelis would have been on the streets," he said. "I thought to myself that there is no correlation between the number of Israelis that live in Los Angeles and the actions that are being taken by them."
One of the reasons Israelis didn't turn out in droves to the rally -- aside from the excuse they gave him of the sweltering heat -- is that Israelis aren't used to being involved here: in politics, in philanthropy, in volunteering.
"The Israelis here are Israeli; it's clear to them that they are Israeli. They watch the Israeli news, the Israeli sports," Danoch said, explaining why they don't feel the need to be pro-active. "It's like Israel's TV slogan: Chayim B'America, Margishim Yisrael. ("Living in America, Feeling Israel.")
Danoch decided then and there to start an organization to bring together successful Israelis to encourage leadership and philanthropy for the community here and tie it back to the community in Israel. The Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) met for the first time last week to discuss how to mobilize Israelis here.
Israelis aren't the only ones living in America who feel like they are somewhere else.
Indeed, immigrant communities often struggle with loyalties to the social mores of their old country and their new one. In the world of philanthropy and volunteerism, many Jewish leaders have learned that immigrant Jewish communities also have attitudes different from their American-born Jewish brothers and sisters. Those attitudes stem from the political systems and types of communities from which they came and what was expected of them in their native lands.
In Russia, for example, there was no real word for charity, said Si Frumkin, chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.
"There is a word, but it means giving away," he said. "In general, people don't give."
Coming from a communist regime, where one was discouraged from doing anything for the community, he said, working for the individual was the only way to survive. This is an attitude they bring with them to America.
"The Russian immigrants come here and think you have to build a new life for yourself," he said. "It's not a question of being bad or good -- it's a different attitude."
Israelis also come from a socialist country, where the government takes care of its people's needs. Similarly, they are not used to a capitalist country where many of those needs must be funded by charity. But in Israel, unlike the former Soviet Union, there is an additional barrier to charity and volunteerism: army service.
"The Israeli community has been trained to be able to possibly sacrifice their lives for the community," said Naty Saidoff (photo), a real estate investor on the board of the newly formed ILC. "They have to give in the way of survival. They give their children as cannon fodder, to protect the country through military service."
"The Israeli community that came here, in a way, turned its back on the Zionistic dream, and they came here to chase the golden calf and some came to hide," he said. "In my head I know that every Israeli that lives here really cares about Israel; they just need an outlet to make that energy come out."
Saidoff didn't let his own son serve in the Israel Defense Forces "for selfish reasons," but had him volunteer in community service here instead.
The Iranian Jewish community, while also an insulated immigrant group, is different from the Israeli and the Russian-speaking communities.
"The Persians had a community in Iran, and giving was done -- they are traditional, they feel an obligation of Jewish values to give in their community," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. So the notion of charity and community organization is as familiar to them as it is to many American Jews, he said, especially within their own community.
"You can see [it in] the nature of the proliferation of causes, programming and things that are related to members of their own community."
Organized giving outside their own community, though, is a different story.
"They were involved within themselves ... their synagogues and organizations, and their own people," said Jimmy Delshad, the mayor of Beverly Hills and a leader in the Iranian Jewish community. "As time has passed, they really became more charitable toward Israel."
In fact, Fishel said, the cause of Israel has inspired all three immigrant communities -- Russian-speaking, Israeli and Iranian -- to be more involved in charity. Whether for advocacy on behalf of Israel, donations to Israeli organizations or emergency fund relief for specific causes like the war, in the past few years all the Jewish organizations have stepped up.
"The Russian-speaking community picked up the issue of Israel and terror attacks," said Eugene Levin, of Panorama Media Group, which owns six Russian newspapers, some of which ran ads for the gala to support Israel. This year the gala raised more than $250,000, he said.
"It's a new culture [for Russian-speaking Jews] and they assimilated to a certain degree, and they understand this is a need for Israel and they donate money."
They feel connected to Israel especially because of the influx of immigrants there from the former Soviet Union.
The Iranian community has also come together on behalf of Israel. "The Persian Jews are more Zionist-oriented and like to help Israel a lot," Delshad said.
For example, Magbit, an Iranian Jewish charity in Los Angeles, was founded 18 years ago to donate money to Israel. Today, more than $10 million in interest-free loans are given to students in Israel.
"They started becoming successful in their businesses and it's a way not to forget their brothers in Israel," said Delshad, who was the president and now is the chairman of the board. Other Iranian Jewish organizations and synagogues with a heavy Iranian Jewish concentration have rallied around Israel to send missions and donate large sums of money. The recent rounds of terror in Israel, beginning with the second intifada through the Lebanon war, have also inspired the Israeli community to donate.
"I think the experience we had during the war last summer brought Israelis together," Fishel said. "I think it's a reflection [of] a maturation, voluntary giving as an act of tzedakah as opposed to relying on state for the provider of all service."
Last week, at the launching of the Israeli Leadership Club (ILC), Delshad spoke to 60 top Israeli-American businessmen in real estate, banking, business, technology and jewelry.
"We want to realize the potential of the Israeli community here," Danoch said. "There is no doubt their influence can be greater."
The ILC will initiate projects and encourage participation of the Israeli community to strengthen ties to Israel in all sectors.
"When we're talking about the biggest Israeli community in the world outside Israel, it has to be proactive," Danoch said.
Even when it comes to giving money to Israel, Fishel said as a generalization each community prefers giving to specific causes. The Russian gala, for example, benefited Sorasky hospital in Tel Aviv, named after a Russian. The Israelis, he said, are very "hands-on" and like to give to very specific, targeted causes, like the Israeli firefighters or people who were in the military or to purchase specific equipment.
"I think they were concerned that their giving [should go] to programs and projects they identified with; as native-born Israelis they understand how the system could work, and wanted to know their money got to the place that it should," Fischel said.
The Iranians, he said, like to give to individuals: "Their giving during the wake of the war was directed at personally making an impact on individual lives."
But those are all generalizations, said Fishel. "In all these groups, you have individuals who have [given to all] sorts of causes."
One thing that has been generally true, though, is that immigrant communities usually don't donate to local Los Angeles Jewish causes.
"They don't get involved in too may nonprofit organizations that are local -- whether it's a hospital or fundraising," Delshad said.
Frumkin agreed this is true of the Russian-speaking community. The Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former Soviet Union, which raised $10,000 for Israel last year, "will not give to local causes. It's not interesting to them. They are very concerned with Israel and Israel's survival."
But as immigrants learn to adapt to their home country, there may be signs even this is changing. Magbit, when first founded, was donating 100 percent of its scholarships to Israel. That has shifted to directing 20 percent to American institutions. At the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, which has donated much money to Israel as a community, there is one Iranian family that wants to do the same for America.
"There was a young Persian couple of means who just got married and wrote in their wedding invitation that any gift received they are going to give to charity," said Sephardic Temple's Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who could not divulge the donors because it is not yet public. He said they were happy there were so many organizations donating to Israel, and they wanted to do tikkun olam here.
"If we're supposed to be a light onto the nations, this is a great way of doing that," they told him.
However or wherever immigrant communities are donating their newfound wealth, there is one thing that unites them and may differentiate them from native-born Americans, Frumkin said: "Everybody loves this country. I've yet to go to an event and not toast the United States of America. Real Americans don't do this."