Sheryl Sandberg has been the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook for more than a decade. Sheryl Sandberg has been the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook for more than a decade. Sheryl Sandberg has been the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook for more than a decade. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and fiancé donate $2.5 million to IsraAid

Funds from the newly engaged couple will help the Tel Aviv-based group offer humanitarian relief around the globe.

On a recent trip to the Mediterranean, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was so impressed with the work of humanitarian aid agency IsraAid that she decided to help. Sandberg and her fiancé – former NBC News producer Tom Bernthal – have pledged $2.5 million to the Tel Aviv-based nonprofit organization.

"It will go a long way," IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer told From The Grapevine in an exclusive interview this morning. "I was super thrilled and excited, and I'm very grateful. I know Israel is very important to her."

Sandberg got connected with IsraAid through her younger sister Michelle, a pediatrician who had previously volunteered for the organization in Kenya. "Michelle did amazing work there," Polizer said.

In August 2019, Sandberg and Bernthal took their families – including grandparents and children – on a trip to both Israel and Greece. In Israel, Sandberg mostly stuck to conducting business, opening a new Facebook office space in Tel Aviv and celebrating the launch of the local office of Sandberg’s organization "Lean In," which promotes gender equality in the workforce. After Israel, the family went to Lesbos, Greece, where they spent time at a refugee camp set up by IsraAid.

An IsraAid volunteer (right) shakes the hand of a woman staying at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. An IsraAid volunteer (right) shakes the hand of a woman staying at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. (Photo: IsraAid)

"We joined the community members at Sindos Community Centre where IsraAID supports refugees, including unaccompanied minors who undertake this journey on their own, with language classes, vocational training and youth leadership programs," Sandberg wrote. "We visited the Moria refugee camp and watched passionate teachers, who are refugees themselves, teach a class of 5 to 13 year olds; they are determined to be part of the solution and ensure these kids get an education despite some of the worst conditions anyone could live in anywhere. And we ended the day at the Lifejacket Graveyard, where 660,000 lifejackets that brought refugees to safety lie as an unforgettable reminder that parents only put their kids into rafts on the open sea when water is safer than land. While seeing the lifejackets is haunting, each one represents someone who made it – and their hope for a better life."

She added: "So many people dedicate their lives to helping others, but those who are working to ease the pain of the refugee crisis around the world are among the most inspiring."

Like the Red Cross and the Americares Foundation, IsraAid travels to the scenes of natural disasters and other areas around the globe that need support. They've been busy in recent years. After a cyclone roared through Vanuatu, and an earthquake rattled Nepal, and a flood ravaged West Virginia, IsraAid ran to the rescue. They've gone on missions to the South Sudan, Japan, India and the Philippines, just to name a few.

IsraAid volunteers prepare boxes of medical supplies that are being shipped to China. IsraAid volunteers prepare boxes of medical supplies that are being shipped to China to help combat the coronavirus. (Photo: Courtesy IsraAid)

Most recently, they are helping in Asia in the wake of the fast-spreading coronavirus. Earlier this week, they rushed pallets of urgent medical supplies on the last plane from Israel to China. Polizer said that was just the first round of aid. "We're sending more on Sunday," he told us. "And next week or the week after, we're going to be sending our team there. We're going to focus more on the mental health piece, providing people with trauma counseling and stress management."

For Polizer, this is just par for the course. "I worked for a year during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone," he said. "That was really dangerous. There was 40% mortality rate. Now [with coronavirus] it's about 2%."

Sandberg, 50 and a mother of two, has been widowed since her husband passed away suddenly while on vacation in 2015. The 46-year-old Bernthal is divorced with three children. The couple was set up by Sandberg's late husband's brother. The two made their public debut at a Garth Brooks concert in Idaho last year. Bernthal may look strangely familiar to many people, as he bears a striking resemblance to his brother, television actor Jon Bernthal.

The two got engaged on Feb. 1 and, naturally, made the announcement on Facebook.

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Sandberg is no stranger to philanthropy. In addition to donating $100 million of her Facebook stock to charity, she has also established a scholarship in memory of her late husband. The Dave Goldberg Scholarship Program offers help with college tuition to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The $2.5 million donation to IsraAid will be distributed over the course of five years at a rate of $500,000 per year. The organization, which has a staff of 250 people, has an annual budget of $12 million. This contribution will account for about 5% of IsraAid's annual budget. Polizer said the Sandberg-Bernthal funds will be used for IsraAid's emergency relief around the world, where it has operations in 14 countries. "A lot of our funds come when there's a disaster and people donate to a specific disaster," he said. "But Sheryl's funding is for our whole emergency relief. So it allows us to also support the long-term recovery, not just the immediate relief – which is also very important."

Want to learn more about IsraAid? Listen to our 2018 podcast interview with Niv Rabino, a humanitarian relief worker for the group. The episode tells the daring story of how Rabino – whose niece was stuck for days on the second floor of a flooded home – helped Houston recover after Hurricane Harvey.

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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and fiancé donate $2.5 million to IsraAid
Funds from the newly engaged couple will help the Tel Aviv-based group offer humanitarian relief around the globe.