Wisdom in charity

As fewer Jews give donations, private philanthropists may be better positioned than large organizations.

haim topol 88 (photo credit: )
haim topol 88
(photo credit: )
Nachum: One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks. Lazar-Wolf: I had a bad week. Nachum: If you had a bad week, why should I suffer? - Fiddler On The Roof The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas arm of the US Jewish philanthropic system, announced last week that it was cutting programming to 25,000 recipients in the former Soviet Union and laying off 60 workers in Jerusalem, New York and the FSU. The reason: The falling dollar has created a 20 percent hole, or $60 million gap, in its budget. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last week, the JDC's $325m. budget includes an $87m. contribution from the United Jewish Communities, which represents 155 federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America. The UJC's own operating budget stands at $37m., down from a peak of $46m. Other JDC money comes from individuals, foundations, Holocaust reparations, and the Israeli government. The constraints now facing the JDC typify those of other organizations. The dean of a Jerusalem-based educational institute, which receives no government aid, told The Jerusalem Post that he had just returned from a successful fund-raising trip to the US bringing back pledges totaling $1m. Since he raises money in dollars but spends them in shekels, these funds are worth significantly less than just one year ago. The crisis in the dollar, and how the organized Jewish world should respond, will be high on the agenda of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors when it meets today and Monday in Jerusalem. The agency is facing is own budget shortfall. But the fall in the dollar is only one manifestation of the world economy's predicament. In New York City, for example, Jewish groups are being hard hit by municipal budget cuts that impact on their ability to deliver services to some 77,000 elderly Jewish poor. Funding for the homebound lunch program is being streamlined. The local Housing Authority says it can't continue to subsidize senior citizens centers in its buildings. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is grappling with a projected $3 billion-5b. budget deficit for the next fiscal year. Philanthropists, who make their money in banking and on Wall Street in places such as Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, have taken a financial beating. Nevertheless, observers counsel that there is still money out there. THIS BRINGS us to a new buzzword circulating in Jewish organizational life - "silo." At all times, but especially in these, it is essential that key players engaged in communal work communicate, coordinate and network. As with an isolated silo, communication that is only vertical, that does not interface with other entities doing similar work, is an extravagance the Jewish world can ill afford. In the 21st century, we cannot put up with organizational duplication, unnecessary competitiveness and petty rivalries. It would be tempting to go through the lengthy roster of organizations, from the 51 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to the scores of others orbiting the Jewish world - some like spent asteroids - and ask whether each is essential for Jewish security, welfare, administration and continuity. In our nonhierarchical world, however, only those who foot the bill have the prerogative of telling an organization: Your time has passed. As fewer affluent young Jews donate to Jewish causes, private philanthropists and "boutique" charities are sometimes better positioned than large organizations to target money where it is needed. And yet, a mature analysis of Jewish organizational life is bound to conclude that if at least some of the groups now on the scene did not exist, they would have to be created ex nihilo. The legendary Jewish leader Ralph I. Goldman offered this advice in 1981. "What is necessary is... to recognize that immortality does not apply to organizations and institutions... that going out of business is an essential quality of community service - not change for the sake of change, but change because it is necessary and good." Implementing this sagacious recommendation depends on individual donors, organizations and foundations using sound judgment to evaluate which groups merit continued support. In today's economic climate, the imperative for such pragmatism is more urgent than ever.