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