Mus­lims Are Fundrais­ing For Jews — So Where’s the Money Go­ing?

Forward Magazine - - FOREGROUND - By Ai­den Pink ●

Cel­e­brateMercy is a Mus­lim not-for­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion with only three full-time staffers, but in the past year and a half it has cre­ated crowd­fund­ing cam­paigns that have raised $400,000 for Jewish ceme­ter­ies, as well as for syn­a­gogues and for a Holo­caust me­mo­rial.

The cam­paigns started in Fe­bru­ary 2017, af­ter more than 100 head­stones were over­turned at a Jewish ceme­tery in St. Louis amid a na­tion­wide spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes. Within months, though, a Jewish politi­cian in New York City, Dov Hikind, started ask­ing whether the money was re­ally go­ing to its pur­ported ben­e­fi­cia­ries. He im­plied that the cam­paign was sus­pect, be­cause Linda Sar­sour, a Pales­tini­anAmer­i­can ac­tivist who sup­ports the boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions move­ment, was help­ing to lead it.

Nearly all of that money — from that first cam­paign and a sec­ond one in­spired by the mas­sacre of 11 Jews in a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue — has been distributed, the For­ward has de­ter­mined by speak­ing with Cel­e­brateMercy’s found­ing di­rec­tor, Tarek El-Mes­sidi, as well as with Jewish and Mus­lim lead­ers who have been work­ing with him. De­lays in dis­tribut­ing some of the funds had oc­curred be­cause of the com­pli­cated na­ture of dis­burs­ing and spend­ing large chunks of money.

“It’s al­most like you’re ap­ply­ing for a grant. You don’t give out that money within a week,” El-Mes­sidi said. “Un­for­tu­nately, it turned po­lit­i­cal. Peo­ple were try­ing to ques­tion her in­tegrity, our in­tegrity, in terms of, ‘Are you pock­et­ing the funds?’ No, we’re try­ing to be care­ful.”

The first project reached its $20,000 goal in less than five hours and even­tu­ally raised $162,468.

Cel­e­brateMercy says it distributed $55,000 of the ceme­tery crowd­fund­ing in the sub­se­quent months: $40,000 to the St. Louis ceme­tery, Ch­esed Shel Emes, and $5,000 each to the Chicago Loop Syn­a­gogue; Brit­ton Road Ceme­tery, in Rochester, and the New Eng­land Holo­caust Me­mo­rial, in Bos­ton, all of which had been van­dal­ized.

And as the For­ward re­ported in 2017 Cel­e­brateMercy sent $30,000 at the end of that year to Golden Hill Ceme­tery, a his­toric Jewish ceme­tery

in Colorado that had fallen into dis­re­pair, to fix fenc­ing around the prop­erty. Cel­e­brateMercy says it sent an ad­di­tional $15,000 in March 2018 to re­pair grave­stones. The ceme­tery’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Neal Price, de­clined to dis­close the ex­act amount he had re­ceived, but con­firmed that the Mus­lim group had “pro­vided all the money” that the ceme­tery had asked for.

So what about the re­main­ing $62,000? El-Mes­sidi says the orig­i­nal plan was for the rest of the money to be used for land­scap­ing im­prove­ments at Golden Hill. Price told the For­ward in 2017 about a pos­si­ble “Phase Three” in­volv­ing land­scap­ing, but he said that he never asked for it. El-Mes­sidi and Price both said that any “Phase Three” has, in any event, hit a roadblock be­cause the ceme­tery care­taker has gone blind.

El-Mes­sidi said he had held off on spend­ing down the money be­cause he wanted to re­serve it for Golden Hill in case they de­cide to pro­ceed with Phase Three af­ter all. But af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with Price, he is now us­ing the money 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, one of his em­ploy­ees had that very day mailed a $10,000 check to Tree of Life Con­gre­ga­tion, in Pitts­burgh, where 11 peo­ple were killed in Oc­to­ber 2018. He in­tended for the money to be used to re­pair the build­ing, which was dam­aged with bul­let holes from the shoot­ing.

That do­na­tion is sep­a­rate from the sec­ond, $238,634 cam­paign, ini­ti­ated to help vic­tims of the shoot­ing and their fam­i­lies. It reached its goal of $150,000 in 50 hours; El-Mes­sidi wrote at that point that he would send that amount to the Is­lamic Cen­ter of Pitts­burgh to be distributed lo­cally, and the rest would be kept for “projects that help foster Mus­lim-Jewish col­lab­o­ra­tion, di­a­logue and sol­i­dar­ity.”

Some on­line crit­ics of Sar­sour raised hack­les over this ar­range­ment. They in­sin­u­ated that the money in­tended for Mus­lim-Jewish sol­i­dar­ity projects would just be pock­eted by Sar­sour and El-Mes­sidi.

Many also claimed that the cam­paign was de­cep­tive be­cause the do­nated money was ini­tially sent to the Is­lamic Cen­ter, not di­rectly to Tree of Life. But the fact that the Is­lamic Cen­ter would be the ini­tial re­cip­i­ent of funds was al­ways dis­closed on the crowd­fund­ing site, half­way down the page.

The money “is in the process of be­ing distributed to the Jewish com­mu­nity,” the di­rec­tor of the Pitts­burgh Jewish Fed­er­a­tion’s Com­mu­nity Re­la­tions Coun­cil, Josh Sayles, told the For­ward in an email.

“The Com­mu­nity Re­la­tions Coun­cil and the Is­lamic Cen­ter have a strong work­ing re­la­tion­ship that goes back many years,” Sayles wrote. “One hun­dred per­cent of th­ese funds will go to the Jewish com­mu­nity.”

In­deed, Tree of Life, the Is­lamic Cen­ter and Cel­e­brateMercy signed two for­mal agree­ments gov­ern­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of funds at the end of Novem­ber, copies of which were shared with the For­ward. The first gov­erned how $155,00 ($5,000 more than ini­tially agreed) would be distributed to vic­tims of the shoot­ing and their fam­i­lies, and how the money would be tracked and ac­counted for.

When El-Mes­sidi first spoke to the For­ward, he was still brain­storm what ex­actly to do with the re­main­ing $83,000 promised for Mus­lim-Jewish part­ner­ships. “I do have some ideas: If there’s a mosque that wants to host fast-break­ing din­ners dur­ing Ra­madan for the Jewish com­mu­nity…. Mus­lim and Jewish com­mu­ni­ties break­ing bread to­gether, or maybe Jewish and Mus­lim youth groups do­ing ser­vice projects – feed­ing the home­less,” he said. But he didn’t want the money to go to any­thing po­lit­i­cal or di­vi­sive: “My pref­er­ence is the projects will fo­cus on, where are there sim­i­lar­i­ties? What are events and projects where there could be no dis­putes?”

Even­tu­ally, though, they de­cided to give that money to Tree of Life as well, which would use those funds for “projects to help foster Mus­limJewish col­lab­o­ra­tion, di­a­logue and sol­i­dar­ity,” pro­vided that vic­tims and their fam­i­lies “have no fur­ther need.” Tree of Life will con­sult with the other two groups on which projects to fund. “Fi­nal se­lec­tion and grant-mak­ing to such projects will be by [Tree of Life], pend­ing ap­proval from Cel­e­brateMercy and ICP,” the doc­u­ment ex­plains.

Plans are al­ready un­der­way for a Mus­lim-Jewish event in Fe­bru­ary, Mo­hamed said. “They want to do a thank you event,” Mo­hamed said, re­fer­ring to Tree of Life. “I said, we don’t need a thank you. But there will be a big event to an­nounce the big stuff we’re go­ing to do in the next year.”

Cel­e­brateMercy’s main work is pro­mot­ing the life of the Prophet Muham­mad. El-Mes­sidi said the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s sup­port of the Jewish com­mu­nity is fol­low­ing the prophet’s ex­am­ple; El-Mes­sidi cited a story about when he stood up to pay his re­spects for a pass­ing Jewish fu­neral.

“For us, this is about our shared hu­man­ity,” he said. “We can dif­fer po­lit­i­cally, we can dif­fer on big is­sues, but hu­man­ity comes first. When we wanted to raise funds for the ceme­ter­ies, and now for the vic­tims, we’re not ask­ing about the vic­tims’ pol­i­tics or their stance on the Is­raeli-Pales­tine con­flict. We don’t care about that. We care about [the fact that] every­one de­serves to rest in peace, and no one should be afraid in a place of wor­ship.”


COM­MON GROUND:Tarek El-Mes­sidi (left) tours the Golden Hill ceme­tery in Colorado.

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