From The Chronicle of Philanthropy
By Drew Lindsay
October 12, 2023
The crisis demands intense, pressure-packed effort, yet the horrifying violence is hitting close to home.
As war rages in Israel, where Marina Rosenberg emigrated as a little girl from Argentina, she pulls together her team by Zoom. Rosenberg joins from Washington, D.C., where she leads the Anti-Defamation League’s international efforts. Other staff log on from around the world.
Since the first hours after the Hamas attack, this group has monitored increasing antisemitism globally and rallied support for Israel. Seven of them live in Israel. Sirens have blared during Zoom calls, warning of incoming rockets. Once, the sirens signaled an attack in northern Israel, where Rosenberg grew up on a kibbutz and where many in her family still live.
Fortunately, her mother was visiting Rosenberg when the invasion began. She remains in Washington. “We watch the news and see where the missiles hit,” says Rosenberg, a former Israeli diplomat. “And immediately we make phone calls to family and friends who live there.”
Such is the experience of many who work in the vast Jewish nonprofit network in the United States. It’s similar for those at the smaller number of groups supporting Palestinians in Gaza. The crisis and its horrifying violence demand intense work from nonprofits — to manage aid efforts, support local communities, organize rallies, launch fundraising drives. Yet even as they lean into the pressure and long hours, leaders and staff navigate fear, anger, and sorrow.
“These have been some of the hardest days of my adult life,” said ADL president Jonathan Greenblatt in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I have family in Israel right now under siege and being deployed to the front lines. I have staff who can’t locate their family. I have friends who are gone.”
Feelings of Helplessness
Six of the eight staff members of the U.S. committee of UNRWA — the United Nations agency supporting Palestinian refugees — are of Palestinian descent. Development manager Nahed Elrayes, the son of Palestinian refugees from Gaza, says Israeli shells almost completely leveled his family’s neighborhood, though their house somehow still stands. “Nothing about this can be separated from the personal,” he says.
Hani Almadhoun, the organization’s director of philanthropy, lived in Gaza as a boy. He has family in the region but has not yet been able to reach them by phone. Via the Telegram app, he learned that more than a dozen relatives had been killed. “You want to process this, but you don’t even have a chance because the worst is yet to come.”
Almadhoun continues to talk to donors and raise money, but there’s a feeling of helplessness. An aid corridor has not been opened to Gaza, and devastation there grows as food supplies dwindle. “We’ve raised half a million dollars — that’s at least one building in Gaza. But we’re talking about thousands of buildings that are
down,” he says.
Steve Sosebee, who founded the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, a medical and humanitarian aid organization, says the Israeli air attack on Gaza is the worst in the group’s 30 years working in the country. “We’ve never seen anything quite like this scale that’s been going on the past two or three days in the number of casualties and the number and type of overall destruction.”
Missile strikes have damaged a children’s cancer ward the group built. The fate of its offices is unknown, and staff are scrambling for safety. Sosebee directs the organization from Ohio; his longtime program coordinator in Gaza texted to say that the Israeli military had told her and her family, including two small children, to leave their home. The area would soon be bombed.
“She had nowhere to go,” Sosebee says. “There are no safe places in Gaza anywhere.”
Staff and volunteers with the Middle East Children’s Alliance are delivering food and supplies in Gaza despite the heavy bombardment, says Zeiad Abbas Shamrouch, executive director of the California-based group. He said a staff member told him during a recent call: “We are surrounded by death, but we are choosing to live.” The two often joke during their trans-Atlantic conversations, but she recently cried as she hung up “because we don’t know if she will call again.”
In Israel, Rabbi Olya Weinstein, who leads efforts in the country for Project Kesher, is running online programs from a bomb shelter where she’s taken refuge with her three children. For the past 15 years, the organization has run leadership programs for Russian-speaking Jewish women who have immigrated to Israel from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Since the war in Ukraine began in Feburary 2022, the group has been working with a big influx of women from Russia and Ukraine who need more basic support. Many of them fled war only to find themselves once again in the middle of violence.
Project Kesher is now working in two war zones. In Ukraine, where it’s worked for 30 years, a shell fell last month near its offices in the city of Kryvyi Rih. The blast shattered its windows and sent two workers scrambling for cover. Staff this week scaled the roof to raise the flag of Israel under its Ukranian flag.
“The trauma between the two countries is just so intense,” says CEO Karyn Gershon.
Violence at Home
Fear and anxiety also are hitting the leadership ranks of groups that don’t do direct work in Israel or Gaza. Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, says she spent the weekend frantically reaching out to friends and former colleagues in Israel, where she spent a year studying at the Hebrew University. “It’s so hard to compartmentalize because it is a slew of friends or family or colleagues who are directly impacted, whose stories are just all over your social media, all over your WhatsApp and text chains.”
Leading Edge, which supports the leadership of Jewish nonprofits and foundations, estimates the United States has more than 9,000 Jewish organizations with roughly 100,000 workers. Many synagogues and local organizations are providing mental-health support and arranging gatherings to help people process the events. Groups also are putting in place additional security measures, fearing that rising antisemitism will spark violence. The 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is a fixture in the minds of many, says Leading Edge CEO Gali Cooks.
Cooks sent an email to its network of CEOs, board members, and other executives with advice and resources for how to manage staff at a time “when nothing can be ‘business as usual.’” Cooks says she also is telling leaders to care for themselves even as they care for others.
“Everyone is deeply connected to Israel,” Cooks says. “There’s a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of sadness.”
At UNRWA USA, executive director Mara Kronenfeld says her emotionally exhausted staff lean on each other for support, in part because many in the United States do not understand the plight of Palestinians. “Sometimes, it’s painful feeling a little bit alone in that context,” she says.
Some conversations with donors have been tense, Almadhoun says. “Some donors have different opinions. They support you to a certain degree, and then they stop caring.”
A Sense of Purpose
It’s important to remember that others have also suffered violence-related trauma in recent years, says Spitalnick of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Black Americans, she notes, have been targeted by white supremacists like in the 2022 shooting at a Buffalo grocery store. Anger is a natural response, but that can’t derail advocates trying to build coalitions under the banner of justice and equality. “You have to acknowledge it and grapple with it without letting it stop the work, because that is precisely what extremists of every stripe want.”
The staff at UNRWA USA say their work gives them purpose and a distraction. “The job can really be a blessing and an outlet for our energy. It can provide us with a solid and consistent means of feeling that we are needed,” says development manager Elrayes. “For many of us, that’s the reason why we joined this line of work in the first place.”
Rosenberg says ADL is offering psychological support services to staff and creating opportunities for people to gather and talk about the roller-coaster of emotions. “It’s important that they feel they have a safe place to share their feelings and fears and anger,” she says.
“Everybody is just using their sorrow and their rage to do good and to fight hate. In a way, it fills us with energy to do whatever we can to make sure that Israelis know that they’re not alone. That the families of the hostages know that they’re not alone. And that we’re going to do whatever we can from here to make sure that their loved ones are safe.”