Theater charity Broadway Cares to fund relief for Israelis after Gaza aid ‘confusion’

New York rabbi who put cash in bucket after healthcare pitch at end of show says foreign funding wasn’t mentioned, was surprised to learn $400,000 going to Gaza humanitarian projects

Illustrative: A sign for 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' hangs at the Broadway opening at the Lyric Theatre in New York, April 22, 2018. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Illustrative: A sign for 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' hangs at the Broadway opening at the Lyric Theatre in New York, April 22, 2018. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

The philanthropic organization Broadway Cares said it would allocate funds to Israeli civilians in need after a New York rabbi filed a complaint against the theater charity for contributing to Gaza relief efforts.

In a statement to the New York Jewish Week, the nonprofit also acknowledged that it had “created confusion among our valued supporters.” The group vowed to provide more information about where it was allocating the money it raised.

“Transparency is of the utmost importance to us,” read the statement by Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “We are actively updating our in-theater fundraising communications with shows to ensure clarity regarding the breadth of where donations are directed.”

Broadway Cares is the flagship charity of the theater world and is often introduced at Broadway shows following the curtain call when stars will appeal to their audiences to make a donation into a trademark red bucket as they exit the theater. Those fundraising pitches, which happen in the spring and fall, typically focus on the organization’s core mission: funding HIV/AIDS treatment as well as health care for underemployed actors.

“This wonderful organization helps provide social services and safety nets for people in our industry — onstage, backstage — who are going through tough times,” went a typical pitch, made at the end of a November showing of “Back to the Future” on Broadway. “And in addition to that, [it] provides millions of dollars in grants every year to other social services and safety nets such as food banks, women’s health initiatives, and natural disaster relief.”

Rabbi Erica Gerson recalls hearing a version of that pitch when she attended a performance of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” last year, following Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The pitch did not mention any international funding, she said, and she gave a small cash donation.

But last month, she was surprised to see that in addition to funding health care and social services, the charity also announced that it had allocated $400,000 to humanitarian groups working in Gaza — $200,000 each to Doctors of the World and the International Rescue Committee. The announcement made no mention of Israel.

Mark and Erica Gerson help fund Christian missionary hospitals in Africa, but religion has little to do with it. (Michael Gerson/ via JTA)

Israel responded to the October 7 attack with a military offensive in the Gaza Strip to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza and free the 253 hostages who were abducted from Israel during the terror attack.

The war has caused widespread devastation in Gaza. Israel says the plight of the civilian population is worsened by Hamas plundering humanitarian resources for its own fighters.

The allocation announcement came as international aid groups have said Gaza is at risk of famine and warned that much of its population is underfed. The Broadway Cares announcement said the funding would go toward “food, water, fuel, quality health care, essential medicines and supplies to all caught in the tragedy of this conflict and so many families facing catastrophe.”

Gerson, a philanthropist whose giving also focuses on health care and emergency aid internationally, called the Gaza donations a “misrepresentation” of Broadway Cares’ stated goals. She was particularly concerned in light of reports that Hamas has seized aid meant for civilians.

“This is just completely unrelated to what they tell audience members and I felt taken advantage of,” Gerson told the New York Jewish Week. “I have taken them over the years at their word and I was therefore shocked.”

On February 10, Gerson filed a complaint with New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office, saying she was “entirely misled by both the verbal pitch at the theater and the description on the website.” The New York Jewish Week has learned that James’s office is reviewing the complaint.

The Gaza donations have also drawn the attention of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, which raised the issue with Viola in early January, said Susan Tuchman, the director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice.

Tuchman said ZOA took issue with the donations partly because the two aid organizations, Doctors of the World and the International Rescue Committee, do not work in Israel, despite working elsewhere in the Middle East, according to their websites. Tuchman also objected to the IRC’s statement on October 7, amid Hamas’s attack, which did not mention the terror group and simply said the group was “dismayed by the dramatic escalation of violence and mourn the extensive loss of civilian life in Israel and Gaza today.”

Screen capture from video of Susan Tuchman, the director of Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, 2017. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Tuchman also requested that Broadway Cares direct funds to Israelis affected by the Hamas massacre, and be more transparent with audiences.

“Simply telling audiences that their donations are going toward helping individuals battling HIV/AIDS and other serious health concerns is not accurate,” Tuchman told Viola in an email exchange she shared with the New York Jewish Week.

In response to the complaints, Viola told the New York Jewish Week on Tuesday that the organization will fund aid to Israeli civilians along with the Gaza allocations.

“Our humanitarian aid supports human need and doesn’t follow a political agenda,” Viola said in the statement, adding later, “Broadway Cares will soon be announcing a commitment to direct funds to organizations providing lifesaving aid to Israeli civilians impacted by this conflict.”

Viola added that the group regularly directs a portion of its funding to those affected by natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the world. In 2023, he said, Broadway Cares awarded $17.2 million in grants, including $600,000 for disaster relief in the US and Turkey. In 2022, the group also donated $300,000 to humanitarian relief in Ukraine.

Tuchman had called for Broadway Cares to donate to Israeli causes and said she hoped it would give as much to aid Israeli civilians as it had to groups providing relief in Gaza.

“We look forward to Broadway Cares finally donating funds that will go directly to helping the many Israelis who’ve endured so much suffering and loss,” Tuchman said. “We hope and expect that Broadway Cares will be as generous as it was to the two groups providing aid in Gaza.”

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