Monday, July 21, 2008

Jewish institutions & money - the critical role of the professional shnorrer

Haaretz published:

Uncle Moish, the man in the middle
By Joseph Cedar

Morris Talansky was my uncle until he and my aunt divorced more than 10 years ago. Since then, I saw him only briefly at family gatherings once every few years. But before the divorce, Uncle Moish, as we called him, was a dominant and significant figure in my life. I even thought about making a movie based on his character, which I would call "Middleman."

It would be a story about a professional fund-raiser forced to live between the wealthy Jews, the big philanthropists who cleanse their conscience by donating to organizations with lofty goals, and the altruistic visionaries who use the donations to further their noble life projects, which eventually earn them the Israel Prize. Between these extremes is the middleman, the schnorrer - the macher, as Nahum Barnea insists on calling him - but primarily the charismatic man who manages to bring people together and make everyone feel good. This is the man who doesn't get any glory, respect or appreciation, who is forced to do the grunt work that ultimately benefits everyone.

When my former uncle's name was raised in connection to the scandal involving the prime minister, I assumed the media would home in on his colorful personality. I never thought that the prime minister, through his representatives, would try to prove his innocence by cruelly and offensively slandering a man who spent years helping him and donating to him, and became his close friend.

I'm no expert on the nature of the financial relationship between Talansky and the prime minister, and I don't pretend to understand the legal significance of their relationship, if any. But the various media reports about Talansky's cross-examination make it difficult to avoid concluding that even if our prime minister is not a criminal, he is at least an ingrate.

To somewhat counter the national effort to destroy Talansky's name, I would
like to put the fund-raising profession in a different, less shady light, along with the unique talent that made Talansky one of the leading fund-raisers in the Jewish world.

There is almost no institution in Israel that does not subsist, to some degree or another, on donations. Schools, universities, research institutions, yeshivas, hospitals, museums, social projects, cultural centers, public buildings, memorial sites, ideological and political movements, and even the Israel Defense Forces, are at least partly funded by donors who ¬ setting aside generosity, and a desire to improve things for Israel and the Jewish people ¬ get honored for their contributions. They also (mum's the word!) get significant tax benefits.

Behind the scenes of these donations is usually someone who made the match between the philanthropist and the cause. My understanding is that a successful fund-raiser is essentially a talented storyteller who can plumb the depths of the potential donor's soul and understand what will motivate him to open up his checkbook. In other words, a fund-raiser uses a well-told story and his own captivating personality to convince experienced businessmen to hand over their money, by getting them to feel a sense of shared fate with a goal that's bigger and more deserving than their routine business deals.

This appears to be a basic need of people who have money, and apparently, it turns out, a financial compulsion of the society in which we live. Everyone ends up happy. Everyone benefits. And our reality in Israel is a direct result of this relationship.

Morris Talansky dedicated his life to raising money, primarily, though not solely, for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. He spent nearly his entire life matching up ideas with the money to implement them, matching up the conscience-cleansing of those who give with the missionary zeal of those who receive. Along the way, he has become an expert on the complex relationship between American Jews and Zionism. And he is one of the most interesting, charismatic and generous people I have ever met.

In the Frank Capra movie "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a banker who gets into trouble and, right before he tries to commit suicide, gets a glimpse of how the world would have looked if he didn't exist.

I would have liked to conduct an imaginary tour like this in Jerusalem to demonstrate Morris Talansky's importance in the daily lives of tens of thousands of Israeli citizens, without them being aware of it. The buildings aren't named after him and he's not the one handing out scholarships, but without him, Israel would have been a different place. [...]

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