Jewish ideas daily: Bittersweet charity

"The Jewish charitable impulse may be more tenuous than we have recognized. Bonds can be broken."

Poor 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Poor 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.
In a recent issue of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, together with colleagues, has published an article called “Does Jewish Philanthropy Differ by Sex and Type of Giving?”
This kind of title tends to turn a potential reader into a pillar of salt – but if you’re serious about the future of the American Jewish community and its values, you’ll want to look at Mesch’s findings about the connection between intermarriage and generosity.
The epistomologist Will Rogers once observed that “it isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” This is the principle driving modern survey research, which probes, measures and hypothesizes about human opinions and behaviors that most people think are just common sense. When survey researchers want to explain why this sort of thing is useful, they sometimes point to Samuel Stouffer.
Working for the US military during World War II, Stouffer surveyed American servicemen about everything from class and racial attitudes to their levels of fear under different types of enemy fire. His findings became a multi-volume work called The American Soldier.
People like historian Arthur Schlesinger dismissed it as a series of “ponderous demonstrations” of the obvious. For example, the more educated the soldier, the more difficult his adjustment to military life. Southern soldiers coped better than Northerners with Pacific island heat. White privates sought promotion to sergeant more than blacks did. Southern black enlistees preferred Southern white officers to Northern whites.
These were obvious social facts – except they weren’t true.
As sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld noted in a famous review of Stouffer’s study, the surveys actually found the opposite.
Poorly educated soldiers had more, not fewer, adjustment problems. Southerners couldn’t stand the heat any better than Northerners. Blacks sought promotion more than whites and, in rating officers, showed no preference for white Southern charm.
GARBAGE IN, garbage out: Before you try to explain something, you should make sure you know the facts about what the “something” is.
We do know certain things that are relevant to the “something” that constitutes Jewish philanthropy. Studies show that American Jews give proportionately more than other Americans, especially when it comes to large gifts. Almost three-quarters of Jewish contributions go to non-religious causes, and Jews disproportionately give in order to meet basic human needs like food and shelter.
But we don’t know much about the role of gender and sex in Jewish philanthropy. We know that women are, in general, more generous than men; that when donors are studied as couples, male-female pairs give more than same-sex pairs; and that when married couples make joint decisions about their charitable contributions, the decisions reflect the husband’s preferences more than the wife’s. But the most comprehensive study of American Jewish philanthropy found that sex did not make much of a difference.
Mesch and her colleagues have gone considerably farther. In a sophisticated survey, they divided a sample into various types of household groups. They covered Jewish couples, non-Jewish couples, Jewish man and non-Jewish woman, Jewish woman and non-Jewish man, and singles – Jewish and non-Jewish, male and female. Despite the small size of the US Jewish population, the researchers managed to create groups large enough to make some statistically significant distinctions.
When the researchers asked each household about its religious and secular giving over a number of years, they found some things that were consistent with previous studies. Couples with at least one Jewish member were about as likely as non- Jewish couples to give to religious causes, but the Jewish-member couples were a full 20 percent more likely to give to secular causes. The pattern was the same among singles: Jews and non-Jews gave to religious causes at about the same rate, but Jews gave significantly more for nonreligious purposes.
Then the researchers looked at religious and non-religious giving through a finer lens, controlling for just about every plausible demographic variable – household income, wealth and education; age, number of children, and age of youngest; employment status, region of the country and even health.
The results on religious giving were only moderately interesting. Intermarried couples give less than either fully Jewish or fully non-Jewish households to religious causes; any other result would have suggested that there was something screwy about the data.
More interesting was the question of secular giving. In this area, there would be no reason for religiously intermarried couples to be inherently less likely to give. But the researchers found that intermarried couples consisting of a Jewish wife and a non- Jewish husband were less likely to give than any other kind of household (except for non-Jewish single men, who gave at about the same rate).
As for the amounts of the gifts that the households did make, couples made up of Jewish husbands and non-Jewish wives gave 118% more than the Jewish wives and non-Jewish husbands. Jewish couples gave 76% more. Non-Jewish couples gave 52% more. Singles gave more, by anywhere from almost 30% to 167%.
The researchers did other analyses that divided the types of giving along different lines, but the finding remained: Jewish women married to non-Jewish men gave less than any other type of household.
This is a new fact, and it should make us ask new questions. Does this happen because these couples become separated from Jewish fundraising networks, which have traditionally relied on male-to-male connections? Are Jewish women who marry non-Jewish men particularly prone to adopt non-Jewish norms, which are less charitable than Jewish norms?
One thing of which the researchers are confident is that more research is needed. One thing the rest of us should face is that the Jewish charitable impulse, of which we are so proud and which we take so much for granted, may be more tenuous than we have recognized. Bonds can be broken. The connections that underlie charity may be among them.
(This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.)