Gifts That Keep on Giving

Last month, Yad Vashem received its biggest-ever private donation - $25 million. The benefactor was the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the world's third-richest man. Adelson, who is married to Dr. Miriam Adelson, an Israeli physician, did not ask for a new wing carrying his name, but rather that the money be used for the institution's day-to-day running expenses. Adelson's gift will make it possible to expand the activities of Yad Vashem's educational wing and to upload its enormous data bases onto the Internet, thus aiding in the battle against Holocaust denial.

The fact that his donation is so exceptional in Israeli terms puts the spotlight on just how little of the enormous wealth accumulated by American Jewry finds its way to projects in Israel or to Jewish goals in general. One person worried by this is Lynn Schusterman, one of the best-known and most important philanthropists working with projects in Israel.

"Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman and I are always asking ourselves why it is that Jews don't give to Jewish causes, like they do for example to the Metropolitan [Museum of Art in New York]," Schusterman said in a short interview with Haaretz. "But lately I have become optimistic; I feel that finally there is a comprehension of the issue. Sheldon Adelson is a very important name and hopefully, together with him, we will see a new trend."

Schusterman, 68, doesn't often give interviews to the media. She is considered one of the leading contributors to several of the most important Jewish organizations in the United States: AIPAC, Hillel, the Joint Distribution Committee, birthright israel and dozens of smaller projects.

For Schusterman, the most important field is Jewish youth programs. In the wake of the Lebanon war, she initiated a program called Leading Up North, which plans to fly in 500 Jewish youths this winter to aid in the rehabilitation of locales in the North. Schusterman says the program has received over 2,800 applications from young people wanting to take part.

In 1997, Schusterman bought an apartment in the center of Jerusalem. She explained her decision as having been motivated by a desire to give a personal example that would serve a double educational purpose: To persuade American Jews to buy second homes in Israel and to persuade Israelis to open their homes to philanthropic activities. Her first goal has certainly seen results: apartment prices in Jerusalem have soared in recent years, spurred by a massive wave of purchases by American Jews, mostly from the Orthodox sector. Progress on her second goal seems to be slower: Many Israeli businessmen have accumulated massive wealth in recent years, but they are still far from contributing to the community on a similar scale to their counterparts in the U.S. Schusterman is continuing to invest efforts to effect a change.

"About a year ago," she recalls, "James Snyder came to me. The Israel Museum was having a $60 million campaign to enlarge their campus, and he asked me for $5 million. I told him I would be more than happy, but he would have to match with Israeli funds. He was able to raise the $5 million; it took him a year, but he did it. So I think that slowly, Israelis are learning to give and to care - and besides, they don't have the same tax benefits."

Last month, Israeli businessman Nochi Dankner declared that he would give NIS 100 million toward rehabilitation of the North. The fact that Dankner's donation almost equals that of the world's third-richest man shows that perhaps Israelis are finally maturing, too.