Gabriel Greenbaum is an unlikely philanthropist.
But the 10th-grader and his class at Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, New York, spearheaded a campaign to raise funds for the families of those killed in last month’s terrorist attack at a Har Nof synagogue – an effort that has raised $2.4 million and counting.
“It kept going up and up,” Greenbaum said of the money raised. “I was just in shock. We had, like, an impact.”
The initial effort via a series of crowd-funding websites was so successful that Greenbaum decided to reboot it – this time to raise funds for the family of Zidan Saif, the Druse police officer who was fatally shot by the terrorists upon arriving at the synagogue. That campaign is ongoing.
The day of the attack, Rambam Mesivta administrators called an assembly for the whole school and explained what had happened.
Afterwards, Greenbaum’s 10th-grade class held a brainstorming session on their white board and quickly arrived at the idea of a crowd-funding website.
“I told the kids, ‘You’ve got to do something, you can’t just sit,’” said Rabbi Aryeh Young, a teacher at the Long Island school. “And they all immediately gravitated toward the idea.”
With minimal help, the teens set up a website through the crowd-funding service CrowdRise.
“By 6 o’clock that afternoon it was viral,” said Young. “We raised $18,000 by the end of the first day. By the end of the second day it was $24,000, and it kept ticking up.”
This initial success achieved, Young heard about a parallel effort started by Ira Zlotowitz, president of a New Jersey brokerage firm. He decided to reach out and see how they could work together.
“I’d never spoken to him in my life, he’d never heard of our school before,” said Young.
“There was zero connection.”
With nothing to lose, he made the call.
“I googled his name, I found his cellphone number on the Internet, and I cold called him at 9 o’clock at night,” Young said.
The next morning, Zlotowitz got up at 5:45 a.m. to make the two-hour drive to Long Island to pray at Rambam Mesivta and speak to the school.
“I saw him walking in and I realized the magnitude of what’s happening, how many lives we can touch,” Greenbaum said. “He walked in, he spoke for two minutes to the entire school, and I think he inspired a lot of people.”
“He kept saying how the kids were his heroes,” Young said of Zlotowitz’s speech to the school.
Zlotowitz announced the he had decided to combine a website he had helped start with the effort spearheaded by Greenbaum to launch www.theharnoffund.com.
“People say to me, ‘It’s amazing you jumped in to do what you did,’” said Zlotowitz. “And I turn around and find out there was one kid in 10th grade, and he was the first one.”
“He started Tuesday morning, the other site started on Wednesday, the next week they merged together and really started rolling,” Zlotowitz said.
Soon, the Orthodox Union community organization got involved, reaching out to the victims’ families and sending an email blast to a global database of donors. Contributions began pouring in from places as far-flung as Moscow, Alaska and Australia.
The attack took place on November 18. By November 29, the $1.16m. crowd-funding goal had been reached, generating an equivalent amount in matching funds from anonymous donors who contributed through different channels.
“I didn’t think kids our age could make raise that much money by starting a website,” said Josh Dublin, a 10th-grader at Rambam Mesivta.
Of the children orphaned and wives widowed in the attack, Greenbaum said, “We can’t bring their fathers back.”
But Rabbi Avi Berman, the director general of the Orthodox Union in Israel, said the funds will go a long way to help the families of the victims, some of whom he said “are in a tough time” financially.
Berman, who has lived in Har Nof and has ties to the community, said though neighbors have pitched in with in-kind help such as food and babysitting, the sum raised through www.theharnoffund.com is the only major financial contribution they have received.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Greenbaum decided to create a parallel effort for the family of Saif, who had initially refused an offer of help but later relented.
“After he already got his credit, and everyone said how amazing it is what he put it together, when everything died down, he decided to go help a Druse officer,” Zlotowitz said. “That I think is the true story today.”
Greenbaum’s parents provided the first donation to the combined effort: a small fee for the domain name, www.harnofhero.com, and a $180 contribution.
The goal is to provide the same support for Saif’s family as they have already generated for the families of the Jewish victims, Zlotowitz said.
The fact that Saif had no connection to the community and was not even Jewish makes him all the more deserving of their support, Greenbaum said.
“He wasn’t even davening [praying],” Greenbaum said.
“He was being a hero.”
By EITAN AROM