Carole Solomon's Sacred Mission

By Barbara Sofer
Photography by Karen Benzian

Nopurses at breakfast.
The sign in the Jerusalem Hilton's marbled lobby is a reminder to participants in the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) mission to Israel last November that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to attend this morning's briefing: Security will be tight.
   The private dining room smells of coffee, fresh pastry, goat cheese. The 100 or so men and women quietly discussing Israel's future are not professional political strategists. They are philanthropists, each of whom has made major contributions in the past to the UJA. For five days they have been taken behind the scenes in Israel: powwows with the governor of the Bank of Israel, a tour of a secret anti-terrorist base, a private performance by a controversial dance troupe that had refused to perform at Israel's Jubilee after being asked to put on more clothing.
   Standing as hostess is Carole Abramson Solomon, CW'60, the first woman to become national chair of the UJA in the charity's 60-year history. Wearing a mock-suede navy-blue pantsuit, small pearl earrings, and her ever-present gold Lion of Judah pin, Solomon is lean and attractive. Her amiable manner and easy smile are offset by ever-vigilant hazel eyes, tensed shoulders. Apart from the festivity of breaking croissants among friends, she is responsible for raising the awesome sum of $1.5 billion this year. Pledge by pledge, check by check. If all goes well today, this small group of donors could pledge as much as $10 million after breakfast. The money is badly needed for projects cushioning immigration, feeding hungry Jews in Eastern Europe, sheltering abused children, and bringing American teenagers to Israel to boost their "immunity" to assimilation.
   There is a hitch. It turns out that Netanyahu, locked in angry negotiations with his cabinet over the Wye Plantation agreement, won't be attending the briefing after all. Solomon sighs. The money will just have to be raised without a prime minister warming the atmosphere.
   On a personal level, Solomon's disappointment is less acute. She has met with Netanyahu many times and will see him again at least once the following week, when she plays a key role at the General Assembly -- a large gathering of North American Jewish leaders, also in Jerusalem. Meeting heads of state is a common, if never quite routine, part of her job. A month earlier, Solomon had had an audience with the Pope. Last summer, while touring Azerbaijan, she had a private conference with President Heydar Aliyev, at which, she says, "the real or perceived power of the UJA" crystallized for her. "I was credentializing -- telling him that our annual budget was 1.5 billion dollars -- when his pupils dilated," Solomon recalls. "I realized that our annual budget was as big as his country's yearly exports."

   Solomon was touring the country -- she has also been in Belarus, Georgia, Latvia, Ukraine, the Crimea, and Uzbek-histan -- to check out UJA's projects in the region. UJA money is spent on Jewish nursery schools, medical equipment, Hebrew study centers, Jewish summer camps, and hot meals for the elderly. But President Aliyev had his own agenda: He asked Carole Solomon to intervene with the U.S. government on his behalf to advance his country's favored trade status.
   Which pleased Solomon: "Ultimately it's good for the potentially vulnerable Jews of a country that their leader perceives that they have powerful allies who care about their interests," she explains. "It hasn't always been that way."
   The UJA was hastily organized after Kristalnacht, the large-scale attack on Jewish property in Germany and Austria in November 1938, but American Jewry were ineffectual at rescuing their brethren from the Nazis. That memory has haunted American Jews. Over the last half-century, as their financial resources and confidence grew, vast sums were raised for Israel and imperiled communities. The UJA became the chief vehicle for fundraising, its annual campaign taking in funds from 151 local Jewish federations and 450 independent communities and channeling it to two social service agencies: the Jewish Agency for Israel in Jerusalem and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York City.
   Raising colossal sums for crises, the UJA became the envy of other charitable funds. Nonetheless, the UJA Solomon has taken over has never been so freighted with challenges. American Jews who see photos of Israelis with cell-phones and meet them traveling abroad aren't so sure that Israel needs their help anymore. Immigration has slowed from the former Soviet Union and few Jews remain in Ethiopia. A plethora of smaller charities compete for Jewish funds, often promising lower overhead -- a pledge that is hard to substantiate. According to independent rankings of charities like the one in Money magazine, the UJA is among the top organizations in terms of percentage of money reaching recipients (more than 94 percent).
   "We need to have general funds ready to respond quickly to crises in Jewish history. At the same time, donors often pick a particular project they want to support," Solomon says. Still, convincing Jews -- particularly young ones -- that Jewish needs are pressing and that the UJA is the way to meet them is never easy. Any negative publicity hits hard. On the very day that Solomon was meeting with the major donors in Jerusalem, a muckraking article in Israel's biggest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, pilloried a supposed UJA official (he actually worked for another organization) for his allegedly excessive salary.
   "This kind of attack tars our organization," Solomon says, her voice parched with anger. "Who wouldn't hate to think his money was being squandered?" The UJA has also become a target of dissatisfied Conservative and Reform Jews, who want to show their anger over efforts by ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel to deny the legitimacy of their Judaism.
   "Ninety percent of our givers are Conservative and Reform," Solomon says. "I try to make them realize that punishing the sick, frail, vulnerable isn't the right way to express their anger. We're strictly humanitarian, and no one does as much to support the various religious streams in Israel as we." Her logic doesn't always prevail. In a renegade move last year, several federations withheld UJA-bent contributions to spend at their own discretion.
   Anyone who has ever done fundraising -- from selling Girl Scout cookies to applying for grants -- knows the sting of having a real or figurative door slammed in his or her face. How can Solomon stand being turned down?
   "I can't say I've never lost it -- I have," she admits. "Although I shouldn't -- ever. The hardest part for me is knowing that a refusal from a donor means kids won't go to summer camp or that a family will be hungry. I try not to be judgmental, and to see fundraising as a work in progress. I want to leave each round with the dignity of the potential donor and my own dignity intact."

March/April Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 2/12/99