Metro Views: The crisis of American Jewish philanthropy

Shouldn't donations be directed towards shoring up Jewish institutions?

ny plaza 63 (photo credit: )
ny plaza 63
(photo credit: )
Here is something of a reality check about American Jewish finances. They are not what they used to be. True, we have it easier here than in most places. But across the US, the relentless news is about economic woes, the collapse of the mortgage market and home foreclosures. When traditional news broadcasts offer "consumer segments" about saving on your household grocery bill, something is sad and scary in the US. Shortly before the recent Wall Street and real estate woes sent jitters through philanthropic organizations in the New York area, some local Jewish federations quietly let it be known that they were short on funds and needs were great. For many who are routinely approached by federations, it sounded like the boy who cried wolf. At Israel's 60th anniversary, crisis-driven fund-raising cries would fall flat. Some are asking: Why should we dig deep when Sallai Meridor in speeches to American Jews touts Israel's economic growth and proudly notes that The Economist magazine referred to Israel and its hi-tech as the "land of milk and start-ups." There have been important missions for which everyone emptied their wallets without (much) complaint, such as the rescue of Russian and Ethiopian Jews. But Israel seems to be thriving. Where's the Israeli crisis - the kind that can be remedied with American Jewish funds, especially when such funds are in short supply? DO DIASPORA Jews love Israel? Yes, although apparently we don't love it as much or as deeply as we used to. People who gave last year to an emergency fund-raising campaign for northern Israel are not as quick to make regular donations this year. And when asked for more, those tapped-out American Jews may say, "I gave last year to aid northern Israel, but I recall that Prime Minister Olmert said that the donations were nice, but unnecessary." Maybe Olmert didn't quite say it, but that is the way it came across. Or they say, "I gave to Israel when you told me children were hungry, but I recall that five years ago Prime Minister Sharon was angry that Jewish charities used hungry children in their fund-raising." And then there is the Yossi Beilin factor. If people of a certain age don't recall his suggestion some 15 years ago about UJA and the Jewish Agency getting out of the social welfare business, they do remember feeling insulted. And lest anyone think that people old enough to remember the Beilin slight do not count much, there is a correlation among diaspora Jews between devotion to Israel and age. The older, the better. When the federations call for donations this year, they cannot capitalize on the 60th anniversary of Israel. We've had the pep talk, even as we are painfully aware of Sderot. And there are too many "good news" stories. We've read in The New York Times about Lev Leviev's great wealth and his shop space on the "gilded" Madison Avenue. We know that an Israeli company, the El-Ad Group, spent $400 million to renovate Manhattan's posh Plaza Hotel. That was on top of the $675 million it cost to buy the hotel in 2004. The Times calculated that the El-Ad Group spent more on the Plaza than the gross domestic product of Monaco. Or, one could suggest, several years' budget of the Jewish Agency. When there is that much Israeli money available for a landmark luxury hotel at the base of Central Park, some cash-strapped American Jews get testy when asked about... charity, and they want to know what it is for. SHOULD AMERICAN Jews support the Jewish Agency? It is hard to make that case these days in the metro New York area. The main aliya agency seems to be Nefesh b'Nefesh. The free trips on Birthright Israel for college-age kids are due to the largesse of the mega-donors. And here in the New York area, the idea of Jewish education is less about the Sochnut's offerings than the bank-breaking tuition at any day school. Consider a recent article in the New York Jewish Week about a new merit scholarship program at the Ramaz high school, a prestigious Modern Orthodox school on Manhattan's East Side. The weekly paper noted that Ramaz tuition will top $30,000 this year for the 12th grade. Not a sum to be sneezed at; it's nearly half of a New York family's median annual income, according to US Census Bureau data. (I should note that some members of my family attend Ramaz and, to this day, I cannot fathom how their parents afford it.) The crisis now - the kind that can be fixed with funds - is the crisis of the standard American Jewish institutions, the ones that breed and sustain Jewish life and commitment to Israel: the Jewish schools; the dangerously underfunded after-school programs for Jewish kids in public schools; and the oft-forgotten networks of Jewish camps. Instead, many are searching for that transformative means to ignite the pintele Yid. Charles Bronfman, for instance, is financing a competition for creative thinkers; the winner will have two years to develop a major work to "change the way Jews think about themselves and their community" through the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University. Many think Birthright Israel is the ignition, but once you have these 160,000 college kids presumably fired up with that Jewish spark, what do you do with them when they get home? The Jim Joseph Foundation came up with $25 million to improve programming for Birthright Israel alumni. Foundations and major donors seem to be the engines aiming at Jewish affiliation, which is bound to again frustrate these donors when the Jewish community cannot match their financial commitments. Federations are no less devoted to Jewish affiliation; it is their financial lifeblood, as well as their mission. But it has been easier, and it has been expected, that federations will raise funds for Israel - even though we seem to overlook that, like many institutions, they also need funds to help develop the Israel/Jewish connections in their communities, which will produce the next generation of contributors. I am no authority on Jewish communal development, but it seems clear that, at the 60th anniversary, the nurturing of American Jewish life is in the hands of private foundations instead of communal organizations, which are left with the grunt work of Jewish life. Perhaps Israel and the Jewish Agency should celebrate the anniversary not by telling American Jews: "We need you," but by saying: "We need you to take care of your own."