Muslim Fundraisers Falsely Accused of Not Handing Over Money to Jewish Victims of Pittsburgh Shooting

Crowdfunding project has donated $155,000 to synagogue, but Israeli activist and others wrongly accused it of pocketing all of it but $10,000

The Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue crowdfunding page.
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Finger-pointing and name-calling over funds raised by Muslims for the families of victims of the Pittsburgh shooting have cast a shadow over commemorations marking a month since the murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue.

The disagreement focuses on money raised by a group called Muslims Unite For Pittsburgh Synagogue. On its crowdfunding page, the group specified that it was raising money to “support shooting victims with short-term needs (funeral expenses, medical bills, etc.)”

The effort was organized by CelebrateMercy – a group led by Tarek el-Messidi, a self-described “Muslim-American social entrepreneur and speaker” – in partnership with MPower Change, the group co-founded by Palestinian-American activist and Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour. The funds were to be distributed by the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, working with the Tree of Life synagogue.

The opening shot in the dispute came in a tweet Tuesday by Israeli activist Hen Mazzig. He complained that Sarsour “raised $400,000 for the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, but ONLY $10,000 got to them. Not enough for one funereal [sic] even. I think it’s great that other people support us, but not when they use our tragedy to fundraise and not even 10% gets to the real victims.”

Mazzig’s accusation was echoed by the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and the right-wing blog Townhall, which also charged, without substantiation, that the Islamic Center had “terror ties.”

In addition, the Conservative Review alleged that “Islamists in Pittsburgh” had “pocketed” the cash raised for the Jewish victims. And a piece in the Washington Examiner, which has since been removed, was headlined “Linda Sarsour Uses the Blood of Murdered Jews to Line Her Pockets.”

Sarsour’s defenders responded furiously to what they said were baseless smears. Sophie Ellman-Golan, deputy head of social media and outreach for the Women’s March and a progressive Jewish activist, called Mazzig’s charges “appalling and blatantly false”

Mazzig’s numbers, it turned out, were an amalgamation of two separate crowdfunding campaigns: One from February 2017 to repair Jewish cemeteries; and the Tree of Life campaign, the details of which were reported in the Forward on Sunday.

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The article on the American-Jewish website was written by reporter Aiden Pink, who tweeted later that Mazzig’s tweet was “incredibly inaccurate and grossly distorts my article.” Pink’s piece said that the 2017 cemetery repair campaign raised a total of $162,468.

Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour outside ICE's New York field office in Manhattan, New York, U.S., May 23, 2018.
\ AMR ALFIKY/ REUTERS

El-Messidi told the Forward how $100,000 of that has been distributed to various cemeteries. The remaining $62,000, he said, had been held to act as a “rapid-response fund” to be used after “any hate crimes or vandalism that take place at synagogues, or any kind of Jewish institution.”

To that end, el-Messidi said a $10,000 check had been mailed from that fund to the Tree of Life synagogue this week, to be used for building repairs.

The separate crowdfunding campaign for the Tree of Life victims began with the goal of raising $25,000. Overwhelmed with donations, the total was raised to $150,000 and ultimately accumulated nearly $240,000.

In an update to the crowdfunding site on October 29 – two days after the shooting – it was announced that the first installment of funds ($25,000) was transferred “to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh to immediately begin disbursing help to the families.” The next day, October 30, it announced that it “transferred the second installment of funds ($25K) to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh (ICP)” and that a center representative “met with the local Jewish Federation and twice with the funeral home to begin planning fund disbursement to the victims’ families.”

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On November 1, it said it had “transferred a total of $110,000 to ICP to disburse among the victims’ families (average funeral costs are $10,000 each). By November 20, another $45,000 was transferred and “this completes the final transfer of funds – now a total of $155,000 – for ICP to disburse to the victims’ families. ICP will manage disbursement of the funds to victims’ families.”

Regarding the remaining money, el-Messidi wrote that “Any leftover proceeds, after disbursing funds to victims’ families, will be spent on projects that help foster Muslim-Jewish collaboration, dialogue, and solidarity.”

El-Messidi noted that when decisions were made about which projects to fund, he would update the page.

Despite the fact that funds had begun moving to the Islamic Center almost a month earlier, it was only on November 25 – the day before Pink’s article in the Forward was published – that el-Messidi updated on the crowdfunding site that the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh gave a $155,000 check to the Tree of Life synagogue. He provided a link to a letter acknowledging that 100 percent of the funds would be disbursed by the synagogue to the victims’ families by December 15, 2018.

In the Forward, el-Messidi said he was “still brainstorming” what exactly to do with the remaining $83,000 promised for Muslim-Jewish partnerships, and that “he wanted to have a conversation soon with MPower Change, Sarsour’s organization, to brainstorm more ideas, as well as use their large mailing list to promote the availability of the grants to donors and community members.”

He said that the funds would not be limited to Pittsburgh, though he hoped leaders in that community would be involved.

The director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, Josh Sayles, confirmed to the Forward that the $155,000 transferred to the Islamic Center “is in the process of being distributed to the Jewish community.”

He said his group had “a strong working relationship that goes back many years” with the Islamic Center, and that he and its executive director “have spoken almost daily since the shooting to strategize as to the most efficient way for the Muslim community to allocate the funds. One hundred percent of these funds will go to the Jewish community.”

While the sum raised by the Muslim-sponsored crowdfunding effort is impressive, it represents only a fraction of the total amount of money raised to help the victims’ families and Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

According to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, the total amount of donations will total more than $5 million – a sum that includes $3.65 million pledged to the local Jewish Federation’s Victims of Terror Fund.

Jewish community leaders are reportedly working with an expert attorney who helped distribute funds to victims of 9/11, the Sandy Hook massacre, and the Pulse nightclub and Las Vegas shootings.