Madoff Loss Hits Art Aid for Young in Israel
Madoff Loss Hits Art Aid for Young in Israel

Published: May 20, 2009
TEL AVIV — For six months Illay Dahan had been putting in several hours a day on his cello, preparing a program of works by Bach, Fauré, Bruch and Paul Ben-Haim, an Israeli composer. Now the pressure was on, and Illay, an outgoing 12-year-old with floppy hair and glasses, was struggling to memorize the pieces.

Illay Dahan, 12, is one of the promising young applicants for scholarships given by the foundation.
He was preparing for Israel’s annual musical ritual, which began on Sunday, when the first of hundreds of musicians from around the country started descending on the city to audition for scholarships given by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.

Small and little known outside Israel, the foundation has enormous influence there and in classical music worldwide. Receiving one of its scholarships for lessons, conservatory tuition or study abroad is an essential stamp of approval for Israeli musicians, and the foundation counts renowned musicians like Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham and Yefim Bronfman as recipients when they were students. But this year, disaster looms. The foundation’s endowment of about $14 million was in the hands of Bernard L. Madoff and evaporated in his Ponzi scheme. Like other victims of the fraud the foundation received statements showing false earnings tied to the stock market, said David Homan, the foundation’s New York-based executive director.

The foundation supports dance and the visual arts as well as music, and it expects to give around 350 scholarships next year, down from about 800. The usual dozen or so new foreign scholarships will not be offered. That means fewer Israelis at the Juilliard School and other major international conservatories. The foundation runs a major music competition, which is also threatened.

All told, the foundation, established in 1939 by New York Jews who wanted to foster culture in the land that would become the state of Israel, used to give out about $2 million a year. The scholarship program is unabashedly aimed at casting Israel in a positive light. “A.I.C.F. works to create a broader understanding of Israel by facilitating opportunities to directly experience Israel’s culture,” its newsletter reads.

The foundation was one of many Jewish organizations hit hard by the Madoff scandal. The financial debacle has raised the prospect that it could shut down.

“I just can’t believe it will happen, or that people will let it happen,” said Orit Naor, its executive director in Israel.

So far about $1 million in emergency money has been raised from individuals, corporations and foundations, as well as the national lottery, to ensure that this year’s recipients are given their grants and maintain a slimmed-down program next fall. To save money the foundation dismissed most of its staff in its Tel Aviv and New York offices. A gala fund-raiser is planned for Carnegie Hall in January to celebrate the foundation’s 70th anniversary, and many of the big-name recipients will perform.

“We’re an organization looking to rebuild from a major catastrophe,” Mr. Homan said. “I have every hope that we’re going to survive.”

The loss has already meant hardship for Micha Finkelstein, 19, a cellist in the army who lives in Tekoa, a West Bank settlement. His scholarship, for lessons, was cut in half. His parents made up the difference. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the scholarships here. They serve as credentials to be admitted to other music programs around the country. Some students choose their teachers based on the number of past scholarship winners they have taught. Some want to audition even knowing that there is no chance of a scholarship.

Mr. Bronfman, a pianist and frequent soloist with the world’s major orchestras, said the foundation’s support changed his life. “I wouldn’t have been able to continue my education,” he said. “It was as simple as that. We came from Russia with no money, no means to survive. It did a world of difference.”

Two-thirds of the players in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra are foundation veterans, Ms. Naor said. Others have received grants to buy their instruments.

In Israel, an A.I.C.F. scholarship is commonly referred to as a keren, Hebrew for foundation. Young players use the term as in, When is your keren? Did you get a keren? How much is your keren?

Not winning a foundation scholarship can be devastating to some young musicians, said Ms. Naor, a former professional flutist and recipient. “When you don’t give a scholarship, it can cause them to stop,” she added.

The foundation also lends valuable violins and cellos. Guy Braunstein, a principal violinist of the Berlin Philharmonic and keren recipient, played his audition for the orchestra on a foundation Guadagnini.

Illay received his first keren two years ago, and it paid half of his precollege tuition at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. Payments were stopped in the spring, said his mother, Ruth Ronen-Dahan, and the family was not even sure there would be auditions this year.

But on Monday, Illay went off to play for the jury. “It went real good,” he said by telephone. “I played with no mistakes, and it was really good.” The foundation did not say exactly when he would learn the results.

When asked, during a visit to his home here last month, what rejection would mean, he put on a brave face. “It will not break me,” he said.

Ms. Ronen-Dahan, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University, knew exactly the keren’s importance.

“It marks the fact that he’s entered the world of music officially,” she said. “It also creates an atmosphere that you are in the international game.”

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