by Ron D. Wegsman, CFRE
In these days of budget cutbacks, there has been a lot of discussion about the need to eliminate duplication in the Jewish communal world. Many organizations, it seems, are doing essentially the same thing. It would be a more effective use of limited communal dollars, many people argue, for similar organizations and programs to join together, rather than maintain separate infrastructures.
Perhaps Phyllis Cook, indisputably one of the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals in the Jewish philanthropic community, said it most succinctly. “We let too many flowers grow,” she told the recent Jewish Funders Network conference, “and there may have to be a weeding out.”
There can be no doubt that using funds as efficiently as possible is a worthy goal. And just because organizations have had an important historical role to play doesn’t mean they should continue existing indefinitely. Do we really need, in the 21st century, both an American Jewish Committee and an American Jewish Congress? (And indeed, word is that these two venerable organizations are talking about merging.) There are probably many organizations and programs in the Jewish community that would do well to consolidate.
There is a danger in consolidation, however. Our Jewish community is diverse – and getting more so, as new generations emerge with different characteristics and interests. Jewish nonprofits reflect this diversity. We are blessed with a cadre of imaginative Jewish professionals who are developing innovative new ways to be Jewish. Many longstanding organizations and programs also continue to do highly effective work.
We have day schools and summer camps, and programs to encourage children to attend them. We have Birthright, MASA and other programs to bring young people for peak experiences in Israel. We have organizations that give people opportunities to help Third World communities, improve the environment, and create music, all in a Jewish context.
Some of these programs are clearly unique. Others seem to be quite similar to each other. Some, perhaps, will peter out in a few years; others will grow into major community institutions. But we cannot distinguish those that ultimately will prove to be transformative from those that will fail just by looking at whether they appear to duplicate existing programs.
A well-known Mishna says, “A human being makes a number of coins from a single mold, and all are the same; but the King of King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, made every human being from the mold of the first human, yet none looks like another.”
In our creativity as we design programs for the Jewish community, we embody something of the divine. Each organization, like each human being, has its own unique character, even if it was formed from the same mold as another. The difference may have to do with the identity of the organization’s founders, or its local community, or its first clients. Often these differences are subtle. They may be difficult to see or describe. But, like the disabilities that the signs on public buses remind us are not always visible, they are there.
Even though I have been at it for a number of years, I still sometimes find it difficult to describe what exactly makes some of the programs of the organization I work for different from similar programs of other organizations. The summer camps in the former Soviet Union of the Reform Zionist youth movement Netzer, for example, are Israel-centered. So are those of the Jewish Agency. Netzer camps celebrate Shabbat. So do the Jewish Agency’s. Netzer camps are oriented toward Reform Judaism, while Jewish Agency camps are oriented toward Hebrew culture. But what does that difference mean in practice? It is difficult to say.
And yet, in an evaluation conducted last summer, 77% of the young people at Netzer camp who had previously attended a camp run by another Jewish organization said they preferred the Netzer camp. I am sure that those young people who have chosen to attend other organizations’ camps have a similar preference in the other direction. What makes campers so clearly prefer one camp over the other? Whatever it is – and whatever it is probably differs from person to person – it is not something that will be readily apparent from a site visit, or easily explained in a grant proposal.
With so many different kinds of Jews out there, we need to offer as many points of entry to Jewish involvement as possible. Similar programs, while they might appear to duplicate each other, may contain subtle differences that attract different people, in ways that we may not quite understand.
Does that mean that philanthropists have to support every single Jewish organization and program? Of course not. But, in a well-meaning effort to eliminate unnecessary duplication, let us not lose the necessary duplication that reflects the diversity of the Jewish people.
Let us not force organizations or programs together merely because they look the same; instead, let a free market of organizations, clients and philanthropists determine, over time, which initiatives will endure, and which will return to the dust.
Economic downturns notwithstanding, the Jewish community does have the wherewithal to invest in multiple programs. As Kim Hirsh pointed out on this website recently, with the massive transfer of wealth from the Baby Boomer generation, philanthropic giving by Jews will total, by a conservative estimate, $400 billion over the next 50 years. And as Mark Charendoff told the JFN conference, foundations can look for creative ways to provide additional support above and beyond grants.
As we do our unavoidable weeding out, let us not uproot those flowers that may add unexpected colors and shapes to our Jewish communal garden.
Ron D. Wegsman, CFRE is a Certified Fund Raising Executive who has been working in Israeli and Jewish nonprofits since 1993. He is Grants Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a Board member of Habonim Dror Camp Na’aleh.