The War Over Israelis Living in America

Sheldon Adelson backs Israeli American group in U.S., prompting a battle over turf.

NEW YORK – The Israeli American Council has big plans for growing beyond its home turf of Los Angeles. It is expanding with the help of funding from U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, deeply worrying other groups serving Israelis across the United States. Adelson and his wife have already donated $2.5 million to IAC to seed the expansion plans.

The IAC, which claims to be the largest Israeli American organization in the country, has opened a national headquarters at its Los Angeles base, and is hiring senior staff including a regional director in South Florida. Meanwhile, Israelis in suburban New York, the Boston area, Philadelphia and Las Vegas have expressed interest in opening IAC offices, CEO Sagi Balasha told Haaretz.

The IAC, like many groups serving Israelis in the U.S., is just a few years old and runs programming like networking groups, Hebrew education for children born to Israeli parents, and parties for Israeli Independence Day and Hanukkah.

The group ran into trouble in late October and early November when a survey it distributed asked Israelis in the U.S. which country they would be more loyal to in a conflict between the two governments. Amid the bad press that followed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered all Israeli consulates to stop issuing the survey. The IAC yanked the offending question but continued distributing its questionnaire.

Despite the survey flap, the IAC is continuing with its expansion plans. And that is sending tremors through much of the nascent organizational infrastructure already serving Israelis in communities across the U.S.

“A lot of the smaller communities are very worried about rich people from L.A. coming,” said Oren Heiman, the managing partner of Shiboleth, a law firm with offices in New York and Tel Aviv. Heiman is also chairman of Moatza Mekomit, an umbrella organization established early this year for groups serving Israelis in the greater New York City area.

In September, the IAC unveiled its expansion plans with this announcement: “All chapters will follow the same vision and mission statement.”

Empowering – or replacing – local organizations?

It was the same month that Adelson and his Israeli-born wife, Miriam, made a $2.5 million donation to the IAC, Balasha said. Adelson spent more than $100 million on the presidential campaigns of Republican candidates to unseat President Barack Obama. Adelson is also the founder and funder of Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, as well as a mega-philanthropist who donates millions to the Taglit-Birthright program, which offers free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults.

The Adelsons’ total contribution to IAC has not yet been finalized, Balasha said. Michael Bohnen, president of the Adelson Family Foundation, declined to share the sum. Other funders of IAC’s expansion include Haim and Cheryl Saban. Hollywood producer Haim Saban has backed the presidential campaigns of both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton. But the bi-partisan commitments of IAC backers are not assuaging the concerns of some in the field.

Last month Moatza asked IAC to become part of the New York umbrella, which has 80 board members representing more than 50 community organizations. “This was blatantly rejected,” Heiman said, adding that the IAC has “approached most of the board members of Moatza and said, ‘Why don’t you leave and run the council?’”

Balasha says his group was more conciliatory than that. “If we have a representative in New York or New Jersey, we will definitely positively consider being part of Moatza,” he said, adding that the IAC hasn’t tried to poach any Moatza board members. “A few people from New Jersey approached us because they want to establish an IAC office there, and I think one or two are Moatza board members, but we never discussed it with them.”

Heiman misunderstands the IAC’s approach, says Balasha. “In our existence we never destroyed any organization or even weakened it,” he said. “If there is an organization in New York or New Jersey which is just started, the existence of an IAC in that location will just enhance their work. A local organization can really be empowered by our activities and grants.”

Heiman said Moatza’s approach toward leadership and funding differs sharply from the IAC’s. “In L.A. it’s a group of rich individuals looking to lead,” he said. In New York, “we would not allow one or two or three people with a lot of money to buy leadership here. We’re grassroots.”

His group’s board will be elected, not appointed, next year, and Moatza will not accept more than $10,000 from any individual unless three quarters of the board agrees, he said.

Balasha rejected Heiman’s assertion about the IAC’s leadership and said groups can have major donors who are not involved in day-to-day operations.

“Our resources come from hundreds of people in which 60 are donating more than $10,000,” he said, adding that at least five donate more than $100,000 each year. “None of them, including our two main donors, Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, are influencing the IAC in any decision-making.”

The Moatza board has formed a task force to craft a response to the IAC’s overtures, said Heiman. It will be shared with the IAC and the Jewish Agency, a sponsor of the New York umbrella. The threat posed by the IAC is very real, Heiman told Haaretz. “If they spend enough money, I’m afraid during their attempt, it will also destroy other community efforts,” he said.

If the IAC intends to support existing programs rather than undermine them, it “can give money to the Israeli scouts without opening offices. For the first time in 65 years we are starting to bring together the various micro-communities in the New York area,” Heiman said. The IAC’s expansion into his and others’ turf threatens everything they have accomplished.

Not everyone feels threatened

Avi Cohen, in contrast, is enthusiastic about the IAC coming to the New York area.

He is chairman of Bereisheet, a three-year-old group in Tenafly, New Jersey, that organizes social gatherings and runs a Hebrew-language school and day camp for children of Israeli parents. Cohen is in talks with the IAC about his group becoming the IAC office there.

“What the IAC is doing is actually great for the community,” he said. “The IAC is the first and only organization that basically helps not-for-profit organizations working with Israeli Americans. We’ve been following their success on the West Coast through proper funding, which is something we currently lack.”

Aya Shechter directs a different group in Tenafly, the Israeli Center at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. She is deeply worried about the potential impact of an IAC presence on her community, where for the past two years the JCC has offered educational, cultural and business networking programing to Israelis in the area.

The JCC works closely with the local Jewish federation to create connections between the American Jewish and Israeli American communities, something in which the IAC appears to be disinterested, she said. The CEO of the Los Angeles Jewish federation, Jay Sanderson, told Haaretz last August the IAC fosters “self-segregation” among Israelis there. 

An increase in the number of organizations competing for Israelis’ time in Tenafly worries Shechter most, she said, adding that she too reached out to the IAC when she first learned of its plans. 

“I said, ‘We are not L.A., we are just Tenafly; we are lucky if we have 3,000 Israeli families around here. There is no reason to have two Israeli centers. If you are planning to come and create something that is its own separate entity, I’ll tell the JCC that they shouldn’t invest in the Israeli community here.’ Come here, do a real partnership with us, work with us, don’t do something that will create an Israeli ghetto that is not connected to the Jewish community.”

IAC leaders will present their plans in Tenafly on January 16. Balasha said the IAC wants to open its New Jersey office at the Tenafly JCC, which “proves we are not self-segregating.” The meeting will be one stop on a tour of cities where Israeli lay leaders seek to open IAC regional centers; meetings are planned for Las Vegas and Philadelphia as well.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Shechter said. “I don’t want fights.”

But Balasha said his group is only going where there is interest: “Our concept is not to force ourselves on anybody.”

Who will teach the kids Hebrew?

Miami is the first of the IAC’s new offices and Rani Ben-David, president of a medical device company in Hollywood, Florida, is spearheading the effort. He has two children, both of whom speak Hebrew. While his daughter reads the language well, his son does not. In a community where efforts by and for Israelis are fragmented at best, he seeks the resources to offer a class that can teach his son to read Hebrew. Nothing like that currently exists.

A handful of locals have committed to contributing $5,000 to the IAC Miami outpost, and they hope to soon have as many as 10 contributors on board, said Ben-David. He doesn’t yet know how much the IAC will contribute toward the effort.

Still, there’s enthusiasm for the idea. Ben-David expected about 25 people to attend a meeting with IAC leaders in Miami in late October, but nearly twice as many showed up. “It was a great dinner with a lot of positive feelings once people heard what they do,” he said. “Seeing how they just want to give and do, it’s a great, great organization I feel. If we can do the same thing in Florida that they’re doing in California, we’ll be blessed.”

Yehudit Feinstein-Mentesh runs the organization Israelis in Brooklyn, which offers everything from formal after-school programs to a Friday night sing-a-long Shabbat service and dinner each month.

“We are worried what will be the next step” for the IAC in the New York area, she said. “In New York there is so much work going on” to connect Israelis. “We don’t know how it will unfold. We just want to find a way to coexist that will help and support the institutions in a way that is organic.”

Shechter of Israeli Center at the Kaplen JCC remains concerned. “If this thing comes to be a war between organizations, there will be bad implications for all of us,” she said. “I want everyone to be as gentle as possible in this process. We should remember we are all part of one nation in the end.” 

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