Gender and Generosity in Israel

The Diary of a Start-Up Philanthropist

October 2010

One Shabbat afternoon in my garden in Modi’in, a town halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a few women friends and I began a conversation about our work lives which had an unexpected endpoint. As we shared some of our work frustrations, it turned out that we were all working in not-for-profit organizations — one in development in a leading Israeli museum, another in an educational institution, and another heading fundraising for a welfare organization. All in our thirties and forties, we are well-educated, feminist women, originally from English-speaking countries. We spoke about how the women’s organizations run by women were struggling financially (especially after the economic downturn), and that we lacked a women’s network to raise money specifically for women’s causes — inequality under Jewish law of divorce, domestic violence, sexual assault and more.

We agreed that women fundraisers — and women’s causes — just don’t have the access to money that our male counterparts have.

So in Modi’in that afternoon we decided to start a pooled charity — a women’s fund — to create a community of women willing to support feminist innovations and causes, to provide women working on feminist issues with a women’s networking for fundraising. We were going to be group-dependent philanthropists; we were going to find power through our collective resources.

January –March 2011

In an posting in the daily email newsletter eJewish Philanthropy, I announced that a small group of women were getting together to create the Modi’in Women’s Fund. “Each woman will donate a minimum 500 NIS ($140) per month for a year, and at the end of the year, with 20-30 participating donors, we will distribute the funds in several $5,000 grants to organizations run by women social entrepreneurs. It is time for women to start supporting the passions, dreams, and work of other women.”

I also noted, maybe naively, that while this is a significant amount, “We all manage to pay for the things that are important to us — from clothes to gym memberships to manicures to coffee with friends. All of these things we pay for because they are priorities in our lives.

Empowering women’s visions, enabling female social entrepreneurs who are working tirelessly for a better Israel and a better world, must be a priority as well. It is time for us to prioritize women’s power, women’s passions and women’s visions.” Beyond doing good work — nudging along systemic change by funding feminist projects — we figured that making decisions about what to fund would empower the women funders into the bargain.

Israeli women’s causes until now have tended to look primarily to diaspora Jewish women for serious funding, and while it is nice that American Jews often see Israel as a major area of interest, it feels skewed that Israeli women aren’t doing the funding first. And how can it be that many major communities in American have community-based Jewish women’s funds, but not a single town in Israel does?

We wanted to encourage Israeli organizations to look first to Israelis for support, in particular now that Israel has created its own class of indigenously wealthy individuals — whether from the world of high tech or, despite rising prices and a class divide, from the world of business. Doing this with a particular focus on women seems an important concept for donors as well as for recipients: women donors are the ones most likely to understand women’s needs, and I’ve seen from my work as a teacher that women achieve most effectively when they are mentored and nurtured by other women.

At our first meetings, a basic struggle emerged. How much should it cost to be a member of our women’s fund? The minimum monthly contribution we started with — 500 NIS (now about $135) per participant — is the same floor suggested to members of the UJA women’s charity, Lions of Judah Israel. Starting the fund, the dozen or so women who came to those first meetings (out of a Modi’in population of 74,000) thought that this sounded reasonable. It was a sum that, collectively, could really make an impact. We thought that with these pooled funds we could give out two or three grants each year in amounts of, say, $5,000 – $10,000 each, an amount that could fund, for example, a leadership course or a job-retraining program in a battered women’s shelter.

There was tremendous resistance to this suggested donation. It became clear that women in Israel — even professional, educated, hard-working middle-class women — do not have $135 a month to spare. We eventually brought membership down to $36 a month, and met with resistance even there. That we had to lower so drastically the minimum sum for participation in the women’s fund was our first indication that the problem of women and money in Israel was bigger than we’d realized.

The urgency of women’s immediate needs came to a head quickly, when in January we found ourselves unexpectedly providing emergency assistance to a single mother of four, struggling with an emotionally unstable, financially unreliable and abusive ex-husband. She was working tirelessly to take care of her children with dignity, holding several different jobs at odd hours to make it all work. But when her oldest daughter suddenly had to be hospitalized for two weeks, her entire system for survival was about to fall apart.

So I wrote to neighbors and friends in our town asking for help. Immediately, women I didn’t even know offered to make and deliver food, filling up a two-week Googledocs rotation chart within a day. And the donations of food were often generous of heart: home-baked challahs, grocery boxes filled to the brim, and elaborate freshly prepared meals. Women gave of themselves with enormous care and thoughtfulness. A few even added money donations to their food packages, which led the overwhelmed recipient of all this female goodwill to send tearful emails and text messages in reply.

While Israeli women often give generously with their baking, their time and their assistance in an emergency, that impulse doesn’t necessarily translate into a widespread culture of women’s philanthropy, one in which women see their donations as having the potential to change the circumstances that led to their neighbor’s difficulties and disempowerment in the first place.

Women’s philanthropy may be a growing field around the world, but in Israel it’s still in its infancy. In addition to the widespread problem of getting women to take ownership of their money and use it for social change, there are additional cultural and logistical challenges in Israel that raise critical questions about how feminist work is — or should be — funded.

There are three general women’s funds in Israel, although none is a geographically based, communal women’s fund: the Dafna Fund (founded by the late Israeli feminist activist and Professor of Sociology Dafna Izraeli); Lions of Judah Israel, a branch of the UJA women’s franchise; and the National Council of Jewish Women Israel Granting Program which, among other things, has supported a project to enable former sex workers to get vocational training. Missing is something important, it seemed to us, namely a community of Israeli women created explicitly to support women’s needs. Women donors need to be a resource for women’s causes.

But not everyone sees the need as we do. While resistance to giving sums of money from their own accounts might have been predictable, we were even more surprised by resistance to the very idea of a women’s fund from people we’d assumed would be supportive and even collaborative. I spoke at length to a woman who has a doctorate in gender and business development and holds an important position as an official advisor or women’s issues. She had never heard of such a thing as a women’s fund. And she is not alone. Although we explained that a women’s fund benefits everyone, not just women and girls, our arguments fell into the abyss. When we asked her office to support an event last May to launch our initiative, she refused, telling us, in essence, that we were getting in the way.

One of the women with whom I shared my observations is Hamutal Gouri, director of the Dafna Fund, the first Israeli feminist foundation, founded by an Israeli philanthropist. “From my experience, the gender lens does not exist in Israeli philanthropy,” she told me.

“Certainly there are Israeli foundations that give to programs for women and girls, which is commendable. But the idea of philanthropy as a tool for social change, to advance women’s leadership and to change the status of women — that is something we really need to develop here in Israel.”

Ilana Shoshan is Israel’s former Miss Universe-turned-feminist-movie producer, sponsor of the film “Miss-Representation,” about how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. She goes around the world promoting feminist discourse pegged to the film and is “a lone example of a very successful woman who is a champion of the gender issue,” Gouri commented. “But we need another 30 or 40 women like that, women who are willing to talk about gender inequality. Many successful women don’t want to talk about it, or don’t believe that it’s a problem. So even though women are getting increasingly involved in philanthropy, we are not seeing a major difference in terms of gender mainstreaming, and funding with a gender lens.” It’s about addressing systemic problems that women face, and advancing women’s economic, political and social status in society.

Barbara Dobkin, chair of the Dafna Fund’s board, offers a useful reminder: that the Jewish women’s funds in the U.S. grew slowly; their models were the donors’ circles that had started in the general women’s funding movement. “Understanding social change philanthropy is new in the U.S. too,” she said.

April – September 2011

There has been some real excitement from individual women about the idea of women pooling their philanthropy. Women in Ra’anana and Jerusalem have decided to follow suit and are starting to build women’s funds. Tellingly, like the Modi’in group, these early participants are all from English-speaking countries.

“There is some wonderful feminist work going on,” Gouri said, including strong alliances between women’s groups advocating for women in leadership, women’s status in Judaism, violence against women, and more. ”Feminists are making great strides and having an important influence. But the consciousness has not reached local philanthropy yet.”

Part of the problem, I believe, is just how bad Israeli women’s economic lives are. Although Israel is gaining international recognition for a supposedly strong economy and the creation of some thousand new millionaires each year from hi-tech exits, this economic prosperity is not necessarily reaching women.

There is no real middle class in Israel to begin with, and today the divide between rich and poor seems greater than ever. The social and economic protests in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011 — organized and led by a 25-year-old woman, Dafni Leef — made this divide very clear. Discretionary income is a rarity in a country where 60% of the population is living in perpetual overdraft. It’s worse for women, who are still making only 63 agorot (cents) for every shekel earned by men [$1= NIS 3.85]. Plus, women still face significant obstacles to career and financial advancement. Women constitute only 17% of board members of publicly traded companies in Israel, and are only 4.5% of CEOs and 5% of board chairs, according to studies from the past year by Catalyst and Dunn & Bradstreet. Among potential donors and potential grantees, the message is identical and clear: many women have no money.

October 2011

We continue to face the tension between meeting basic needs and making systemic change. Over the past year and a half, the reality of Israeli women’s economic disempowerment has hit our group head on as we continue to readjust our working assumptions.

Every single one of our initial monthly meetings brought at least one new person who urged us to help individual women in need. Indeed, some came to plead for themselves. We received calls from social workers in other municipalities urging us to use our resources to help women struggling to stabilize their lives– mostly single mothers who could not support their families on one income and were battling to get help from their ex-husbands. They faced eviction, removal of their children to boarding schools, and frozen lives. We especially heard from single mothers who had left abusive marriages; they needed direct and immediate economic assistance. People weren’t coming to our fund with requests that we support macro social change projects; but that we help women needing food that week. These proposals were not about social entrepreneurship or economic justice, but simply about survival in the moment. Sometimes we helped and sometimes we didn’t. But we spent a lot of resources over the year — more than we ever intended or envisioned — paying for grocery bills.

There are actually many effective organizations in Israel dedicated to women’s emotional, physical and financial advancement — teaching women how to believe in themselves, giving women tools for job retraining, mentoring, coaching, and more. The only thing that these groups do not necessarily do is fund the process of empowerment. And the reality of having no money is a circumstance that puts the brakes on moving forward, even with the strongest personal plans.

Helping individual women in need to change the immediate circumstances of their lives has evolved into one of the primary missions of our fund right now. This means that if a woman has a vision for a better life for herself and all she lacks is the funding to make it happen, that’s where we can step in.

“Helping individual women and supporting economic empowerment for women are important goals,” Hamutal Gouri said, “But it’s not enough. We also have to be looking towards local philanthropy for social change.”

And we acknowledge this; it’s why we started the fund in the first place. But before every major holiday over the past year, our fund has been asked to provide food packages to struggling women in Modi’in. And we complied. Hardly the stuff of empowerment.

November 2011

There’s also women’s resistance to using the money they do have as power.

Some women who say they want to participate in our fund also say, “I don’t have the money” — which, if you’re staring at an overdraft, is literally true. But even with the overdraft, women find discretionary money to spend on other things. Many women get their hair done weekly and their nails done as often, regularly buy new shoes, go to Aroma, Israel’s home-grown Starbucks chain, at least once a week for coffee with friends — overdraft and all. (One of the rare times that the economics magazine Mamon had a woman on the cover was when it profiled Sharon Chen-Konofny, founder of the Israeli manicure chain “Laka.” In the profile, she said she opened the business because every woman she knows reports without fail for a weekly hair-nails salon appointment.)  So women are finding money for things that feel important to them. And often these things tend to revolve around gendered expectations of beauty. In Israel at least, women are still seeking out power more through self-packaging, rather than using money as a potential source of power.

Meanwhile, we’ve made another important discovery: Even though women are reluctant to part with 120 NIS per month, they are more than willing to donate their time and their food — both of which are donations in kind that women completely undervalue.

If someone spends two hours preparing, cooking and delivering a meal, isn’t each hour worth at least 60 NIS? So if a woman is willing to part with two hours of time (plus supplies) to help a woman in need, why is she reluctant to commit to 120 NIS per month for a pooled fund? Many of the women we have been approaching to become philanthropists — even at our relatively small scale — do not yet view their time as money.

The good news is that in the past few years American phil-anthropist Barbara Dobkin and Nancy Sternoff, the former executive director of the Dobkin Family Foundation, put together a network of Jewish women’s foundations that includes Israeli and American participants. Dobkin said it has taken 10 years for these women’s funds “to begin to think expansively about social change giving and collaborative giving.” The group has evolved into a network of 17 Jewish women’s foundations — including the three Israeli ones — who plan to make their first collaborative grants in Israel this summer. This collaborative effort, one hopes, will raise the profile of gender-sensitive funding, and serve as a model for Israelis. As Lilith has pointed out in past articles on women’s philanthropy, the very availability of funding that is earmarked for women’s issues can spur organizations and individuals to notice problems and create innovative solutions to them. “Programs follow money” is how it is sometimes said. On the other hand, sometimes the good ideas are there all along, just waiting for funding so that they can be put into action.

January – April 2012

Paradoxically, the reason we started the fund — to support gender-sensitive projects geared to changing underlying problems women face in Israel — was being undermined by more immediate needs. We found ourselves, out of compassion, addressing individual problems rather than the systemic problems keeping women down.

We keep changing our understanding of how the fund should operate. We’ve come to the conclusion that direct help to individual women has to be on the agenda in some form. We decided to pilot a two-pronged approach: giving one grant to an organization and one to a woman working to change her life. And unexpectedly, one woman, following her own sexual assault, pledged $5000 to our fund to support a rape crisis center. (Some of the women from the group had been very supportive of her during her ordeal, and this was her way of closing the circle).

We began receiving applications from women, including one particularly poignant one. A single mother who had been ultra-Orthodox and who had escaped from a mentally ill, violent man and rebuilt her life, had received mentoring, services and skills from various women’s organizations and was surviving on crafts and housecleaning. She wanted to take a graphic design course in order to open her own business more professionally, so we decided to fund her studies. Unfortunately, her course was cancelled and then other problems struck, and she has not yet taken the course. Nor have we yet disbursed the grant money we allocated to her.

June 2012

The challenges are manifold, among women as donors and women as recipients — that is, for women of all social strata. It’s great to talk about social change, but when we are faced with women who are not sure how they are going to pay their food bills this month — including smart, educated working women who seem to be plagued by scarcities endemic to Israeli society — the conversation is much more difficult. We want to empower women for the long haul, but we also want to ease women’s suffering right now. Long term goals, defined in the philanthropy world in terms such as “capacity” and “impact,” often come into conflict with immediate goals such as direct assistance. Even some of our donors have found themselves in economic crises because they simply do not make enough money to live in a stable fashion.

In Modi’in we are trying to figure out how to resolve all this. In part it’s about teaching women the difference between making lasagna and making long-term social change.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a gender writer, educator and consultant. Her book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, was published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, UPNE, in 2011.

Web exclusive:  Read landmark Lilith articles on women’s philanthropy at