Updated November 26
CelebrateMercy is a small Muslim not-for-profit with only three full-time staffers, but in the past year and a half, it has created crowdfunding campaigns that have raised $400,000 for Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and a Holocaust memorial.
The campaigns started in February 2017, after more than 100 headstones were overturned at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis amid a nationwide spike in anti-Jewish hate crime. Within months, though, a Jewish politician in New York City, Dov Hikind, started asking whether the money was really going to its purported beneficiaries. He implied that the campaign was suspect because Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, was helping to lead it.
Most of the money — from that first campaign and a second one inspired by the massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue — has been distributed, the Forward has determined by speaking with CelebrateMercy founding director Tarek El-Messidi, as well as Jewish leaders who have been working with him. The rest is still available because of the complicated nature of disbursing and spending large chunks of money, but El-Messidi has plans for it.
“It’s almost like you’re applying for a grant. You don’t give out that money within a week,” El-Messidi said. “Unfortunately, it turned political. People were trying to question her integrity, our integrity, in terms of, ‘Are you pocketing the funds?’ No, we’re trying to be careful and make sure it’s going to deserving causes without handing it out right away.”
Hikind did not respond to a request for comment.
The first project reached its $20,000 goal in less than five hours and eventually raised $162,468.
Celebrate Mercy says it distributed $55,000 of the cemetery crowdfunding in the subsequent months: $40,000 the St. Louis cemetery, Chesed Shel Emes; and $5,000 each to the Chicago Loop Synagogue, Britton Road Cemetery in Rochester, and the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, all of which had been vandalized as well.
And as the Forward reported last year, Celebrate Mercy sent $30,000 at the end of 2017 to Golden Hill Cemetery, a historic Jewish cemetery in Colorado that had fallen into disrepair, to fix fencing around the property. CelebrateMercy says it sent an additional $15,000 this past March to repair gravestones. The cemetery’s executive director, Neal Price, declined to disclose the exact amount he had received, but confirmed to the Forward that the Muslim group had “provided all the money” that they had asked for.
Price lauded El-Messidi and the work they had done together. He had told the Forward last year that both groups had encountered delays in finalizing the project because of their small sizes and difficulties finding contractors to do the repairs.
So what about the remaining $62,000? El-Messidi says the original plan was for the remaining money to be used for landscaping improvements at Golden Hill. Price told the Forward last year about a possible “Phase Three” involving landscaping, but said last month that he never asked for it. El-Messidi and Price both said on Tuesday that any “Phase Three” has in any event hit a roadblock because the cemetery caretaker has gone blind.
El-Messidi said he had held off on spending down the money because he wanted to reserve it for Golden Hill, in case they decide to proceed on Phase Three after all. But after a conversation with Price on Tuesday, he is now considering using the money as a “rapid-response fund” to be used after “any hate crimes or vandalism that take place at synagogues, or any kind of Jewish institution.”
To that end, El-Messidi said on Tuesday, one of his employees had that very day mailed a $10,000 check to Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed last month. He hopes the money will be used to repair the building, which was damaged with bullet holes from the shooting. He predicted it would arrive in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
That donation is separate from the second, $238,634 campaign, initiated to help victims of the shooting and their families. It reached its goal of $150,000 in 50 hours; El-Messidi wrote at that point that he would send that amount to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh to be distributed locally, and the rest would be kept for “projects that help foster Muslim-Jewish collaboration, dialogue, and solidarity.”
The money “is in the process of being distributed to the Jewish community,” the director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, Josh Sayles, told the Forward in an email. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
“The Community Relations Council and the Islamic Center have a strong working relationship that goes back many years,” Sayles wrote. “Wasi [Mohamed, the Islamic Center’s executive director] and I have spoken almost daily since the shooting to strategize as to the most efficient way for the Muslim community to allocate the funds. One hundred percent of these funds will go to the Jewish community.”
On Tuesday, El-Messidi wrote on the crowdfunding website that he ended up sending $155,000, $5,000 more than promised, to the Islamic Center. He posted on Sunday a document signed by himself, Mohamed and a Tree of Life representative detailing exactly how the funds will be distributed to victims and their families.
He said he is still brainstorming what exactly to do with the remaining $83,000 promised for Muslim-Jewish partnerships. “I do have some ideas: If there’s a mosque that wants to host a fast-breaking dinners in Ramadan for the Jewish community….Muslim and Jewish communities breaking bread together, or maybe Jewish and Muslim youth groups doing service projects – feeding the homeless,” he said. But he doesn’t want the money to go to anything political or divisive: “My preference is the projects will focus on, where are there similarities? What are events and projects where there could be no disputes and controversies?”
He said he wanted to have a conversation soon with MPower Change, Sarsour’s organization, to brainstorm more ideas, as well as use their large mailing list to promote the availability of the grants to donors and community members. He also hopes to involve Jewish and Muslim leaders in Pittsburgh, though the funds would not be limited to that city.
“I don’t want it to drag out too long, but I don’t want to do, here’s $100 here, $200 there,” El-Messidi said. “I’d rather it be dispersed quickly so we can focus on a lot of other work we have to do.”
CelebrateMercy’s main work is promoting the life of the Prophet Muhammad. El-Messidi said the organization’s support of the Jewish community is following the prophet’s example, citing a story when he stood up to pay his respects for a passing Jewish funeral.
“For us, this is about our shared humanity,” he said. “We can differ politically, we can differ on big issues, but humanity comes first. When we wanted to raise funds for the cemeteries, and now for the victims, we’re not asking about the victims’ politics or their stance on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. We don’t care about that. We care about [the fact that] everyone deserves to rest in peace, and no one should be afraid in a place of worship.”