Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Jews in peril, send money now! (So did I?)

While Hanukkah is past, ‘tis the season for fundraising letters from Jewish organizations. To read them, you would learn that we live in exciting and/or dangerous times, with Jews facing incredible perils and/or opportunities. At least three worth noting hit my mailbox in recent days. The timing exactly coincided with the Forward newspaper’s annual report on the compensation of executives of Jewish not-for-profits. Drawing on Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service by groups, the Forward had a statistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School crunch the numbers on who’s overpaid and, in some rare cases, underpaid.

I had fun checking the solicitations against the Forward’s findings. How does compensation correlate to effective marketing? And what groups with high salaries show they are good stewards of donated funds, spending for their stated goals? Or does a lack of openness give me pause, resulting in paranoid fears that my donation is funding Vegas weekends of booze, blow and teenage hookers?

I had multi-insert letters from the top two overpaid executives: Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), who topped the list with a 2012 salary of $751,054, overpaid by 112 percent, and executive director Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), with a 2012 salary of $563,372, overpaid by 93 percent.

I also had a package from Alan Gill, CEO and Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), with 2012 salary of $539,439, which, according to the Forward’s analysis, made him underpaid by 12 percent.

For the record, representatives of SWC and RJC both defended the salaries as being carefully considered and reflecting the executives’ performance.

With those lofty salaries in mind, I looked at the groups’ pitches with fresh eyes, wondering what exactly they do and how the executives earn their keep. Rabbi Hier got right to the point before I even opened the envelope. The envelope declared in capital letters, “Surrounded on all sides by enemies . . . Israel stands alone.”

The pitch letter kicks off with a quote from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, noting, “The Zionist regime is a truce cancer tumor on this region.” After that bracing start, Rabbi Hier rolls into an outline of Israel’s “challenges and threats from every side,” and the Center’s role in combating them with the help of 400,000 member families. As a member, I’ll be able to help combat, monitor and fight various threats, including on college campuses. Given that the Center is based in Los Angeles, it likes to drop the name of its Academy Award-winning Moriah Films; in fact, new members get a comp DVD of I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal, “narrated by Academy Award-winner Nicole Kidman.”

On the financial front, the Center’s website carries a “Statement of Activities and Changes in Net Assets,” but it does not give a year. The details are scant. Bottom line: I appreciate the SWC’s role, but I’m not inclined to open my wallet.

Matt Brooks has long been sending me pitches from the Republican Jewish Coalition, probably dating back to when I attended a Jews for Giuliani sushi fundraiser in Manhattan in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Giuliani’s campaign never went anywhere, but I did get some tasty kosher sushi on a pleasant summer evening.

The letter starts off with an allusion to the Ethics of the Fathers, with the line, “Who will stand up . . . if you don’t?” The letter touts the RJC’s accomplishments, in a way that sounds dubious to me. “We shifted Jewish Democratic voters from 2008 to vote Republican in 2012 with a message and tone that resonated in our community.” In other words, the operation was a success even though the patient died.

The letter mixed messages of U.S. political issues, with a call to elect more Republicans to the Senate in 2014 “to get America back on track—not more deficits, higher taxes, unemployment and bureaucracy.” Fine, I can agree with all that.

Then Brooks moved directly to how “President Obama has strained the special US-Israel alliance that took decades to build.” The package didn’t include any address stickers or flashy membership cards, which might have made the $100 price of an individual membership more palatable (the Wiesenthal Center is a bargain at $25 for membership, although the letter urged me to sign up at the $35 “participant” level, asserting, “there is so much at stake!”) Overall, Brooks’ high-priced leadership didn’t result in a very coherent pitch letter, and I imagine the Republican Party will rise or fall without much input from the RJC. Maybe the RJC wins some influence in GOP circles, but AIPAC seems to do a solid job on that front.

Plus, I didn’t see any financial reports on the RJC website, so I have no idea what donations are going for.

Finally, the physical quality of RJC package—the paper, the printing, the goofy stern-looking eagle with the Star of David superimposed on it—just rubbed me the wrong way. Overall: no sale.

The third pitch came from the JDC, led by Alan Gill. He’s the seventh highest-paid Jewish charity executive but, at $539,439, he’s underpaid by 12 percent, so that impressed me. His bio with the Forward feature said, “During Gill’s tenure as executive director of international relations, the organization’s revenue increased tenfold, raising the JDC’s annual budget to $350 million.”

Gill’s letter ran over three pages, but had a lot of ground to cover, from the JDC’s start in 1914 through case studies of “Jewish revival” that directly linked the JDC’s programs to individual Jews. There’s Oksana and her son Slavik in Kazakhstan, seven-year- old Paula in Warsaw, 80-year-old Perel Geller in Zhitomir, Ukraine, and Avigail, the immigrant to Israel from the former Soviet Union (the JDC must think women make for better case studies than men).

In contrast to the murky message of the RJC, the JDC has a clear vision that told me that its team gets out there and makes things happen in concrete ways:

When Jews are in trouble, JDC takes immediate action. We are there to help whenever Jews are in need anywhere in the world. And we are nurturing the rebirth of Jewish life in places where it had been lost for decades.

What really closed the deal for me, however, was JDC’s financial openness. That’s a must-have these days, since I’m very leery of groups because of endless financial scandals, most recently the horrendous uproar involving arrested executive William Rapfogel and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York. The New York Daily News reported,

Rapfogel is charged with having Met Council pay overinflated insurance rates to a Long Island-based company over 20 years. [State Attorney General Eric] Schneiderman’s office charges that Rapfogel pocketed more than $1 million of the $5 million pilfered through the scheme while directing that a portion of the rest be contributed to the campaigns of city and state officials who helped provide public funding to Met Council.

For its part, the Met Council says its making organizational changes, but it has a long way to go to regain its credibility in my eyes.

JDC puts its financial documents up on its website for all to see. It also has a link to the website Charity Navigator, where it earned a four-star rating based on its financial health and accountability and transparency.

The bottom line: while he’s well compensated, Gill is paid fairly for delivering the goods at the JDC and to its clients. The charity’s openness gave me a comfort level that donors’ dollars really are going to the needy Oksanas and Avigails of the world, and not for swanky offices and swollen administrative staffing.

After running the numbers and reading the websites and letters, I can say mazel tov to Alan Gill and the JDC. I just made my first-ever contribution to your group. Spend it wisely and don’t break my heart.

About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.
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