The Jewish Federations system has to adapt to the changing patterns in Jewish
generosity or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant, according to Jeffrey
R. Solomon, an expert on Jewish giving and the president of the Andrea
and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
In an interview with The Jerusalem
ahead of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, the
year’s largest Jewish philanthropic gathering, set to take place in New Orleans
starting November 7, Solomon said on Tuesday that Jewish-American donors in the
early 21st century are pickier, less generous and fewer in number than in the
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“Umbrella-giving and collective responsibility were more societally
embraced in previous generations,” he explained in an e-mail. “Just as
department stores have reinvented themselves into a group of boutiques, so can
“There is both research (see Paul Shervish, Boston College)
and experience (see Toronto Federation’s recent history) that suggests there are
still reforms that can make the Federation system more robust. However, I
don’t see returning to the 1948 New York experience, where one of every two
Jewish households gave to the campaign. (Today it is closer to one in
20.)” Few people know the inside of Jewish- American philanthropy the way
During his long and distinguished career, the former New
York Federations executive has been involved in some of the billion-dollar
field’s biggest operations.
Perhaps his most important contribution came
in 1999, when he played a key role in orchestrating the merger of several major
Jewish groups into the United Jewish Communities, which was rebranded last year
as the Jewish Federations of North America.
He has written numerous
articles, taught at New York University and co-written a book with Charles
Bronfman called The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business
Solomon’s experience puts him in a good position to try and look
into the future. Asked what he believed would top the agenda at this
year’s General Assembly, he said he was filled with a sense of déjà
“The conversion bill [pending in the Knesset] was last on the GA
agenda in 1989, so 21 years later I think that clearly will be the most major
issue,” he said.
“Other issues I think will be around will be the
generational changes taking place in American society. The Peter Beinart article
has generated a great deal of interest and debate,” he continued, referring to
Beinart’s recent New York Book of Reviews piece, which argued that Zionism and
liberalism were drifting apart.
Other topics high on the agenda at
previous GAs have been sidelined in recent years.
In 1999, Solomon wrote
an essay titled “The Crisis of Normality” in which he argued that the main
crisis facing Jewish organizations in the US was that there was none. However,
he said the Jewish world has changed quite a bit since he penned the
“The trends since then have been negative,” he said. “I don’t
believe assimilation is the kind of threat that Iran or virulent anti-Semitism
are. Today’s Western assimilation emerges from unprecedented freedom and choice,
combined with high educational levels and supreme self-confidence; things we
should embrace. A self-confident Judaism thrives in this
“Yesterday’s Jewish institutions, especially in the West,
may not be effectively adapting to these changing conditions. Bottom
line: It is a mixed picture.”
Over the past decade, the Jewish world has
seen many positive changes, too.
“Birthright is amazing,” he said,
referring to the organization that offers free 10-day trips to Israel to Jews
aged 18-26 from around the world. “It has an impact on 90 percent of
participants, including behavioral changes,” he said, quoting research conducted
by Brandeis University.
Despite Taglit-Birthright Israel and other
positive trends, those following the Jewish world might easily conclude that we
live in dire times for the Jews, with reports of anti-Semitism on the rise and
Israel under constant existential threat from its neighbors. But Solomon
said that those who offer a pessimistic view of the state of the Jews may be out
of touch with reality.
“Some argue that when things are good for Jews,
it’s bad for Judaism,” he said. “I believe that the sense of crisis is related
more to changing conditions and institutional needs than to facts on the