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In February, news broke that the Jim Joseph Foundation would give some $25 million a year to Jewish education.
The previous month, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., received a $15 million gift from a family foundation. In late 2004, a group of anonymous families made a $45 million donation to three Boston-area day schools.
These gifts followed a $20 million gift in 2001 from the Sidney Kimmel Foundation to The Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, a Solomon Schechter school in Wynnewood, Pa., that is affiliated with the Conservative movement.
Until recently, gifts of that magnitude to Jewish institutions were exceedingly rare. The fact that such large gifts came so close together has left some in the Jewish community asking - fingers crossed - if they bear witness to a new trend: an increasing number of Jews making mega-gifts to Jewish organizations.
Others, though, wonder whether the spike in mega-giving has more to do with a concerted effort in recent years to boost day-school awareness than with a more general philanthropic trend. They're asking whether such large gifts now can be expected in other corners of the Jewish world, or will be limited largely to the educational realm.
Jews make a highly disproportionate number of gifts of over $10 million in America, but overwhelmingly these gifts go to non-Jewish institutions, from universities to cultural centers to health-care organizations.
According to a 2003 study by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, while Jews gave some 22 percent of America's mega-gifts between 1995 and 2000, fewer than 10 percent of them went to Jewish causes.
But is that changing?
Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, says an increasing number of large gifts now are likely to go to Jewish groups. He sees the fund-raising successes of both the day schools and of the birthright israel program - which brings young Jews on free, 10-day trips to Israel - as indicative of a changing standard of giving in the Jewish philanthropic world.
At a moment when Jewish communal leaders are struggling to engage Jews young and old, this development comes as welcome news.
"The trend is just beginning," said Solomon, who was a co-author on the 2003 study, along with Alex Karp and Gary Tobin, the research institute's president.
"We're going to see an increasing number of mega-gifts for Jewish causes from Jews who've been involved in the Jewish community" but haven't yet made such mega-gifts, he said. "At the same time, I think we're going to see some people who have been giving mega-gifts find compelling Jewish causes to give to."
Still, Solomon cautioned, the trend has just begun, and it may take years to come to full realization.
But Tobin isn't convinced there's a trend at all. He's in the midst of another study on mega-gifts, to be released in the fall, which he says shows that the nature of Jewish mega-gifts is not changing.
"For every gift to a Jewish day school or JCC or any Jewish institution of $10 million or more, you're still seeing 15 or so gifts of equal and often larger size to universities, to secular cultural institutions and to health organizations," he said.
But he added: "You cannot dismiss that some of these mega-gifts to day schools are larger than many of the mega-gifts to Jewish institutions in the past. A few mega-donors are breaking the barrier and changing the standards. It's not yet a trend, but we hope it's setting a new standard for the future, where 10 years from now we're seeing something different."
That being said, several observers and professionals at a recent conference of the Jewish Funders Network told JTA that changes are indeed afoot - and they stem from several sources.
First is the general growth in private philanthropy, including a sizable increase in mega-gifts. In 2003, 104 gifts of $10 million or more in the United States were reported in Giving USA, an annual report on U.S. philanthropy. In 2004, the last year for which data are available, 140 such gifts were reported.
Second is the growing awareness among Jewish causes of what attracts large gifts. Chief among such elements is the ability to inspire confidence that these gifts will be properly managed and will have maximum impact and longevity.
"Jewish people are giving Jewishly when they understand the need," said real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, founder of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
About half of all mega-gifts in the general nonprofit world have gone to universities. These gifts often take the form of endowments and are intended to address school needs in perpetuity. Properly managed, these gifts offer donors both impact and longevity.
"You need the same kind of confidence in a Jewish organization, that it's got the stability and all the elements to meet needs and to go on using the funds both appropriately and effectively," Solomon said.
When philanthropist Lynn Schusterman looks to make a gift, she wants to see not only that the recipient organization has the capacity to use the gift effectively, but that it offers "hope for the future."
"I see both birthright, especially, and BBYO," a Jewish youth group, "targeting an area that I think is vitally important: the unaffiliated," she said. But she added, "there are definitely still some groups that I would hesitate to give that kind of money to."
Perhaps the major change in the past decade, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network - a network of family foundations, public philanthropies and individual funders - is the emergence of partnerships like birthright israel and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.
Pooling resources with others has "really allowed people to have far more ambitious goals for what they want to accomplish with their money," he said.
"Any of these things is enormously difficult to do by yourself," he said. "If you want to really solve a problem, it takes serious capital and it's got to be an ongoing commitment. And it takes an enormous amount of energy - and that's very difficult to do by yourself."
Among the best-known examples of such partnerships is birthright, which initially attracted 20 gifts of $5 million or more.
Individuals also are getting involved in philanthropy at a younger age than in the past, Charendoff said.
"The more you get into philanthropy, the hungrier you get for impact," he said. "As philanthropists in the Jewish world begin to talk to each other more, they're beginning to raise their sights."
Still, it's not enough for everyone's liking.
"There could be 50" such gifts, "but there aren't," said Schusterman, whose Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation last year made 85 percent of its gifts to Jewish causes. "I can't tell you the opportunities that are out there" for making major gifts to Jewish organizations.
Schusterman recently announced a $6 million challenge grant to the University of Texas at Austin aimed at creating a Jewish studies department. The foundation's largest-ever gifts were two $10 million grants to the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa, not aimed at Jewish causes.
Insiders say there has been a fundamental shift in the psychology of Jewish philanthropists, from contributing money to causes and organizations to using money to solve problems - an approach that requires larger investments. Charendoff says some non-Jewish foundations have been taking this approach already for 50 years.
Donors might be willing to donate $1,000 to a soup kitchen in Israel, he said, but they're also proving ready to give $1 million to address the root problems behind hunger by working to change the nature of the school system in, say, the Israeli cities of Beersheba or Lod.
If indeed Jews are beginning to give more of their large gifts to Jewish groups, it would mirror giving patterns in the general population. According to Giving USA, of the $248.52 billion of philanthropic money raised in 2004, more than 35 percent went to religious organizations, and nearly 14 percent went toward educational causes.
Could the slew of large day-school gifts, and a number in other realms - for example, on the same day Kimmel gave $20 million to the Philadelphia-area Schechter school, he gave another $20 million to the city's Jewish federation; the following year he made a $25 million gift to the city's National Museum of American Jewish History as part of its $135 million capital campaign - indicate something other than a new philanthropic trend?
According to Eric Levine, vice president for Renaissance and Renewal at the United Jewish Communities, the federation system's umbrella group, a major push has been made in recent years to inform funders about the importance of Jewish education, and a higher level of sophistication has been achieved in approaching major funders. The recent gifts could be an outgrowth of this rather than an indication of a larger shift.
"I think Jewish education has grabbed a little bit more of the awareness than before, and there is an increased awareness, specifically, on funding day-school education," he said. "I guess we are seeing some movement - just how dramatic and ongoing it will be remains to be seen."
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