Milton Eisner and Mina Kavaler have something of a friendly rivalry going. Both have been longtime solicitors for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — Eisner for 70 years, Kavaler for 72. “He’s still angry about the fact that I have two years on him,” said Kavaler with a laugh. “But I’m older!”
Kavaler, 88, joined the Federation — at the time known as the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh — while she was still a sophomore in Schenley High School. Kavaler was already busy as the captain of her high school’s cheerleading squad, editor of the school paper and scorekeeper for the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association basketball team, not to mention a board member on the YMWHA. The 16-year-old was invited to a Federation meeting, where she pitched an idea of her own: Why not recruit high school students to solicit from their friends and classmates? They liked the idea, and so team captains were established for the three major high schools, Schenley, Allderdice and Peabody.
Kavaler was appointed team captain of Schenley and is now one of the fundraising team captains for the Federation. She still remembers her very first fundraising effort for the Federation: She asked the boy she was dating if he would donate a dollar — big money for 1944 — and he did. Kavaler said they didn’t have donor cards at the time: The expense to create them, she said, would have been greater than the donation itself.
Eisner’s time at the Federation was also preceded by involvement in fundraising for another organization, B’nai B’rith International. He fundraised for the Federation for a while, until one day he got a call from Lou Kushner, asking him to chair the solicitors handling donations of $1,000 or more. “From then on, I just kept moving on and up,” he said.
Eisner, 86, remembered getting a call from Jeff Finkelstein, who told him that “Howard Rieger [former Federation president and CEO] wants to see you.” Eisner walked into a conference room to see Karen Shapira — at the time, the Federation chair — and Richard Kann, a past chair. They asked Eisner, who’s now a board member at large, to chair the annual campaign. Though first he thought, “Me? Campaign chair?” Eisner quickly felt excited by the prospect and told them, “I’m honored. I would be glad to do it.”
Looking back, Eisner said, “that’s when I gained the confidence to really talk to anyone about [donating].” Eisner made soliciting a family affair and recruited his wife to volunteer as well: she even won Campaigner of the Year. Eisner chuckled and said, “When she said, ‘Let’s split the difference’ to someone on the phone, I knew she had made it.”
Fundraising has changed in the years since Kavaler and Eisner got involved.
When she started out, Kavaler says that all of her fundraising took place face to face. As a high schooler and then a University of Pittsburgh student, she fundraised in between classes. If she saw a Jewish student she knew during a free period or in the hallways before the bell, she’d walk over to them, strike up a conversation and ask for a donation. “The money was going to Israel,” said Kavaler. “This was something to talk to people about.”
This was during and just after World War II and Israel was the struggling would-be country that could be a haven for all those displaced and harmed by the Holocaust, so Jewish students were eager to donate.
Today, though, Eisner and Kavaler said that most of their fundraising, if not all, takes place over the phone. “It’s such a busy world that we’re in,” said Kavaler, and most people just don’t have the time to sit down and talk like they used to. Eisner asserted that “anything you sell, it’s better to do it face to face,” though it may be a lost art in some ways.
He remembered a visitor from the Jewish Federations of North America telling Pittsburgh Federation members that they needed to go out to the people, to take the mountain to Mohammed, as it were, or perhaps the donation box to the rabbi in this case. And while some donations are made face to face, both Eisner and Kavaler said they mostly solicit over the phone — sometimes in the same room, during phonathons for volunteers. Kavaler said the energy in the room inspires people to perform better than they would on their own, often hanging up the phone to share a newly raised donation amount with the others.
Soliciting for an organization can sometimes be frustrating. Donors sometimes balk, tell the volunteers that they don’t want to donate because they don’t agree with the politics of a particular agency or with Israel’s own politics, since around 35 percent of the money goes to Israel. Eisner said that when people tell him that, all he can say is, “We can’t control the politics.” He said he tries to explain to the donor how much good all the local agencies do for people. Other times, donors can be unresponsive, from ignoring phone calls to actually hanging up on volunteers, as happened to Eisner. Kavaler said that the main problem she encounters is “trying to get people to up their donation.”
Despite the sometimes discouraging nature of fundraising, both Kavaler and Eisner emphasize how giving and unified the community is as a whole. “I think we’re a very generous community,” said Kavaler. “The best Federation in the country,” she added, which is because of the “devoted, wonderful” people who run it.
Eisner couldn’t agree more. “Pittsburgh has set the tone for a lot of other cities” in terms of donations, he said. After a fire in Beth Shalom in 1996 — Eisner’s own congregation — he called people to ask for donations to help rebuild the sanctuary. He remembered one friend answering the phone and stopping him before he could pitch. “Don’t say anything, Milt,” he told Eisner. “It’s like my home burning down, and I’ll give you $25,000.”
Some Federation executives say the power of the community comes more from the volunteers than the agency. President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein said,“Milt and Mina truly understand the power of the collective — that when we come together as a community, we can do so much more good for those in need.” Brian Eglash, senior vice president and chief development officer, agreed, adding, “We’re lucky to have people like Milt and Mina. They are passionate about what they do. They do an incredible job of making us a strong and vibrant Jewish community. It’s not by accident that Pittsburgh is as strong and vibrant as it is: it’s because of these people.”
Kavaler and Eisner both got involved with fundraising for the same reason. “I want to help people,” said Eisner simply. “Giving is the most important thing,” said Kavaler. “No matter what I have, somebody else doesn’t.” This was a message that was ingrained early: Kavaler remembered accompanying her grandmother on the streetcar to deliver baskets of food to local needy families.
Eisner agreed: The campaigns are all about helping those less fortunate. During his time as campaign chair, Eisner visited Russia and saw some of the communities that received funds through the Joint Distribution Committee, the very money he and so many others had just spent a year soliciting from donors. “If people would see how some other people live — they have nothing. It’s really sad. These old ladies who live on the third floor with a dinky gas stove.” It’s these people the donations help, said Eisner, and he tries to emphasize that when he calls donors. Kavaler said that she tells people, “The need is great, and we have to do more.”
When people ask her when she’ll retire, Kavaler tells them, “Never. I want to be vital. I want to help.” Eisner said that his involvement with the Federation “keeps me going. I love doing it. I’m crazy. But I guess to be a fundraiser, you’ve got to be.”
Masha Shollar can be reached at email@example.com.