Abe H. Gertzman (z”l)
Abe H. Gertzman (z”l)

As anyone who has ever “worked the phones” during a Federation fundraising drive knows: charitable dollars don’t fall generously from the sky. But philanthropy works in mysterious ways sometimes. . . in gifts out of the blue.

Consider the gift of Abe H. Gertzman (z”l) – a $7 million bequest to the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) made in 1995 to “be used exclusively for charitable purposes in Israel.”

As Federation records show, Abe had been a long time and relatively modest supporter of Federation’s Annual Campaign, as were his parents before him. Born in Detroit in 1924, Abe was an only child; he never married or had children. His father, Saul Gertzman, owned a brick company and died in the mid-1960s; his mother, Sonia, died in 1980. Listed in the city directory as a student in Ann Arbor in 1943, Abe was a certified optometrist. But due to emotional problems, he did not spend much time in that profession. Abe inherited his wealth from his parents and lived frugally on the income provided by his investments in real estate and the stock market.

In 1991 Abe had a stroke – which confined him to the West Bloomfield Nursing Home until his death at the age of 70 on February 13, 1995.  In his will, he named the UJA /Detroit as the beneficiary of the majority of his estate to support Israel and the local Jewish community.

Though it was never clear that Abe or his lawyer made the distinction between the UJA and the Detroit Federation, ultimately the two organizations reached an agreement in creating the Abe H. Gerztman Fund for Israel Programming – a permanent philanthropic fund managed by the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA).  Distributions from the Fund are overseen locally by an Advisory Committee, which includes the Presidents of Federation and the United Jewish Foundation in Detroit, working in partnership with JFNA and agencies in Israel.

The Gertzman Fund at work: In January 2017, the Hannaton Educational Center began a new project partnership – Tiferet – bringing post-army Israelis together to study Jewish and Zionist texts, develop their identities and connect more closely to the land of Israel through volunteer and community work.

A life changing fund

Thanks to his generous bequest, Abe Gertzman left a legacy of programs and humanitarian services that have touched and changed the course of thousands of lives in Israel over the past  22 years.  In 2016, the fund continued its support to nine nonprofit organizations, and provided grants to another 11 new programs, for a total distribution of $375,000 in funding to support the critical needs of some of the most vulnerable communities in Israel.  Additionally, a theme that carries through many grants in recent years is an investment in young leadership with the goal to promote social change. Recommendations for grants frequently support activities within Federation’s Partnership2Gether Region of the Central Galilee, with a focus similar to Federation’s NEXTGen engagement programming and leadership development initiatives here in Detroit.

A shining example of the Gertzman Fund at work

One far-reaching community program made possible by the Gertzman Fund is the Hannaton Educational Center and Leadership Institute, an incubator for Jewish leadership that trains young adults through pluralistic Jewish study and “gap year” programming before and after their military service.

The Hannaton Educational Center and Leadership Institute is affiliated with Kibbutz Hannaton in Israel’s Jezreel Valley  – in the heart of Federation’s Partnership2Gether Region. The kibbutz – founded over 30 years ago – has undergone a remarkable renewal, since its re-establishment eight years ago. Thanks to a new dynamic leadership intent on building an open and pluralistic community, the kibbutz is now home to more than 80 families, growing in numbers.  At the heart of Kibbutz Hannaton is its center for learning with the mission to engage young adults from a wide range of religious and socio-economic backgrounds. Programming encourages pluralistic approaches to Jewish study and Jewish life through leadership development, travel and volunteer opportunities.

Welcoming diversity

Rabbi Yoav Ende
Rabbi Yoav Ende

Under the leadership of Hannaton parents, the kibbutz recently converted a public religious school into a pluralistic Jewish school in the nearby town of Tivon, a development which has added a new option for education for the region. “We are trying to break the notion of a dichotomy between a religious and secular Jewish state and to do that, we start with education and leadership development” stated Rabbi Yoav Ende, Executive Director of the Hannaton Educational Center. “The existential question in Israel is not only where the borders will be drawn, but what kind of society evolves between those borders. What does it mean to build a spiritual home, a Jewish and democracy together? What does it mean to have an identity as an Israeli Jew? How do we treat minorities?  To answer those questions, you have to know who you are, what Judaism means for you? We have a lot of education at stake here in order to attack those identity questions.”

Building a pluralistic, “intentional community” is at the core of Hannaton educational programming. “We recruit carefully from high schools all over the country today,” says Rabbi Ende. “Our goal is to create a microcosm of Israel society – boys, girls, Haredi, Orthodox, secular, students from wealth and students from homes with difficulties. We learn from our diversity.”

As the Center has grown – and with new grants from the Gertzman Fund this past year – Hannaton has created new programming within the Leadership Institute, adding the Tiferet post-army program and the short-track Midrasha at the Institute for Jewish Leadership for Rabbis and Lay Leaders. In recent years, the Institute has hosted rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary and from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

And next?

Closer to home, during a recent visit to Detroit, Rabbi Ende spent time in discussion with Federation and Frankel Jewish Academy exploring the benefits of a new program –  recruiting students from Frankel Jewish Academy to Hannaton for six weeks of travel and volunteer work in Israel.  Stay tuned.

For more information about the Abe H. Gertzman Fund and other Federation funding connections in Israel, click here.