As donations roll in, leaders grapple with disbursement
'Victims of Terror'Federation enlists D.C. attorney to help distribute funds

As donations roll in, leaders grapple with disbursement

Ken Feinberg, who administered the federal government’s fund for victims of 9/11 and several other recent gun-related tragedies, will now help leaders here.

Ken Feinberg. (Courtesy photo)
Ken Feinberg. (Courtesy photo)

With millions of dollars pouring in for the victims of the Tree of Life massacre, which claimed 11 lives and injured six others, community leaders have turned to the expert to determine how to distribute the funds in the fairest way possible. Washington, D.C.-based attorney Ken Feinberg, who administered the federal government’s fund for victims of 9/11, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the Las Vegas shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, and the murders at Virginia Tech, will help leaders here with the task in front of them.

Though his portfolio in the Tree of Life disbursement is limited in scope and advisory in nature, Feinberg spoke to board members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh by phone for 90 minutes last week to suggest guidelines on how to go about distributing the donated funds.

As of Nov. 12, $3.65 million had been collected and pledged through the Federation’s Victims of Terror Fund, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing communications. The money collected will be “allocated and distributed by a new committee, with the authorization of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, called the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Relief Fund Committee,” said Hertzman.

The seven-member committee, which was unanimously approved by the Federation’s board, will be chaired by David Shapira, chairman of Giant Eagle, Inc., and will include: Susan Brownlee, former executive director of the Fine Foundation; Jared Cohon, president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University; Steve Halpern, a board member of the Federation and the president of Woodland Management; Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh; Charles “Chuck” Perlow, a Federation board member and chairman of McKnight Realty Partners; and Nancy Rackoff, an estates and trusts attorney at Eckert Seamans.

Pro bono services will be provided to the committee by the law firm Cohen & Grigsby, PNC Bank — which will hold the money and distribute it as the committee directs — and the accounting firm Schneider Downs.

The committee was scheduled to have its first meeting on Nov. 13, and “will meet regularly until the final distribution will be completed,” Hertzman said, adding that while the committee will operate separately from the Federation’s board, it will “act with the advice of the board.”

People comfort one another during a vigil for the Tree of Life victims at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (Photo by Joshua Franzos)

There are specific steps that should be taken, in a specific order, when determining how to distribute funds to victims of a terror attack, according to Feinberg. The first step is to determine how much money there is to distribute.

“That colors everything,” he said in a phone interview from his office in Washington. “Is there one fund? Are there various funds that you are going to consolidate? What about money that was sent directly to the synagogue? First and foremost, find out the scope and amount of money available for distribution.”

The next step is to determine who is eligible to be compensated from the pool of funds.

“Those who died are obviously eligible,” he said. “Those who were physically injured and hospitalized, they are probably eligible. And what about the congregants who weren’t physically injured but witnessed the carnage in the synagogue? Should they be eligible to receive compensation?”

After eligibility is determined, administrators should define the methodology they will use “to decide who gets what,” Feinberg said. “Are all 11 victims to be treated the same?”

He recommended the Federation view all lives as equal in value.

“A 97-year-old woman who died should get the same amount of money as a wage earner who is 70 or 60,” he advised.

A memorial outside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue. (Photo by Jim Busis)

Administrators then should determine how to compensate “individuals who have been injured physically, wounded by the shooter,” Feinberg said. “And I suggested they might get a portion of the money based on how long they were hospitalized. If you are in the hospital for a month, versus two nights, chances are you were more seriously injured.”

Next, administrators need to determine what type of proof is required by claimants in order to receive funds.

“What I mean by proof is you want to make sure that the money is going to the family member who is supposed to get the money,” he said. “I see problems all the time with family members who are in dispute. You get into that whole battle, and before you can cut checks and deliver money, you have to make sure that the money is going to the right people, and that takes proof.”

Whether or not those who are eligible will be given the opportunity for a hearing also needs to be decided, Feinberg said.

The Pittsburgh Jewish Community Relief Fund Committee will offer those eligible to receive money from the fund an opportunity for such a hearing, Hertzman said.

Feinberg counseled Federation leaders to distribute all funds to individual victims, and not to reserve any of those funds for social service organizations that provided help during the crisis.

“There isn’t enough money to have an appreciable impact on that,” he explained, and “it would tie the administrator up in knots trying to determine which claims from which programs should be compensated.”

But donor intent must also be considered. “You have to evaluate the source of the funds,” he said. “Somebody may have sent in a check and said, ‘Pay to the order of the community of Pittsburgh.’ Well, you can’t send that to the victims. That donor wants that money used in other ways. And all this money that came in ‘pay to the order of Tree of Life synagogue,’ well Federation has to sit down with the Tree of Life and find out if they want to use that money to compensate victims or do they want to repair the synagogue, or do they want to increase their endowment? That’s up to the negotiations between the Federation and the Tree of Life.”

Decisions by the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Relief Fund Committee will be made “in consultation” with Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light, and with the first responders who were injured, according to Hertzman.

While the Federation has held “productive talks” with the three congregations affected by the attack, “they have not completed a legal arrangement yet,” Hertzman explained, and the individual fundraising efforts of those congregations are “not part of the Victims of Terror Fund.” Other funds, however, could still be “brought under the purview of this committee,” he added.

From left: Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray a block away from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Aside from the Federation fund, more than $1 million has been donated through a GoFundMe campaign specifically to “Tree of Life Synagogue.” That fund was launched by an Iranian asylum-seeker studying at Johns Hopkins University, Shay Khatiri, who has no connection to Pittsburgh.

“I woke up to the news, and I was staying with a friend of mine who is Jewish, and she was upset, and I wanted to do something to make myself feel better,” Khatiri said. “And I thought maybe I could donate some money to make myself feel better, and later I thought maybe I could perhaps do something bigger.”

Other money specifically designated to Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha has come in as well, according to Michael Eisenberg, chair of that congregation’s capital repair committee. While some of those funds will be used to repair the building, some also will go to the victims “to varying degrees,” Eisenberg said.

“We don’t know yet what proportion will go to the victims,” he said. “It’s too early.”

Eisenberg, who knew all 11 victims personally, said that each one of them would want to see the funds used to propel the community forward, and he hopes to honor them by doing so. “It is heartwarming to see how much support there is in the community and worldwide.”

In addition to money, the Federation also has received “many offers of goods and services,” Hertzman said. “There have been so many. We had to designate one Federation employee just to track all of the offers of goods and services.”

Those goods and services have ranged from counseling to “food to free radio air time to send messages of support to the community, to the Steelers, the Pirates, and especially the Penguins doing things at their games, raising money themselves, sending money from their organizations.”

Last week, the Penguins presented the Federation and Tree of Life representatives a check for almost $350,000.

“United Airlines donated the flights for some of the family members who had to get in at the last minute, and American Airlines also made a very generous donation,” Hertzman added. “We’ve even had local hotels give hotel rooms for family members coming in for the funerals.”

Fans show their support in solidarity with the Jewish community following the anti-Semitic attack on Tree of Life Congregation. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Penguins)

The Federation also has established “a separate fund for security that has garnered a significant amount of money, over and above the money that has been raised for victims of terror,” Hertzman noted.

Other GoFundMe campaigns specifically designated for Congregation Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation — the other two congregations that were present in the Tree of Life building during the attack — have raised $6,000 and $23,000 respectively. Neither congregation has yet determined how those funds will be distributed, according to their presidents.

Many additional funds have been set up as well, including one called Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue, which raised $238,000. That money was distributed to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which disbursed it to the families of the victims. Some of those funds will also be used to foster Muslim-Jewish relations, according to the fund’s LaunchGood site.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh also has been the recipient of several, unsolicited, fundraising efforts, including a “Virtual 5K” run, and a campaign by Macy’s department store, which is asking customers to “round up” their purchases to benefit the JCC.

“We have had a lot of hard costs associated with all the services we’ve been able to provide over the last couple weeks,” said Cathy Samuels, the JCC’s senior director of development and communications.

“We’ve been here for the community, and helping families,” and have not yet “assessed our emerging needs. So much has come in, from so many different ways.”

Expediency is important, Feinberg stressed, and he advises that the Federation’s disbursements be completed within 90 days.

The distribution of the Victims of Terror Fund will conclude within six months, said Hertzman, although the committee “will strive to make the majority of its distributions within a few months.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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