By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
Is a new generation of mega-donors fueling counter-establishment trends and reinventing aspects of Jewish religious and communal life?
Steven Windmueller, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, seems to think so.
Windmueller told eJewish Philanthropy that while today we still see older (65+) Jewish donors giving in traditional ways and to traditional Jewish institutions, already among 45- to 65-year-old donors, there is a move toward alternative giving. And among those under 45, there is a totally different approach to philanthropy.
Windmueller said modern donors – not just young, but those making mega-gifts in the digital age – are interested in new and innovative initiatives for the Jewish world. Rather than supporting the Jewish Community Center or synagogue, they might invest in a more boutique project focused on Israel, the environment or social justice.
“They tend to want to help launch and be identified with some of these new initiatives,” said Windmueller. “Today’s donors like to be seen as initiating or helping to really make a breakthrough, as creating something distinctly their own and leaving an imprint of their family’s investment on that project.”
A striking example is Taglit-Birthright Israel. It’s hard to remember, but Birthright was not generated by the Jewish Federation or the state of Israel. Rather, it was a start-up project by two philanthropic families who launched it with core questions in mind: “Will my children and grandchildren be Jewish, and will they understand the importance of Israel to the Jewish people?”
Today, Birthright is 18 years old, and more than 70,000 young adults have traveled to Israel via the program. However, not all Jewish startups are as successful, and some of our community funds, said Windmueller, end up going toward causes with limited life expectancies.
Rabbi Sid Schwarz, author and social entrepreneur and founder of the New Paradigm Spiritual Communities Initiative (NPSCI) has been working in the Jewish innovation sector for 25 years. He says there are many reasons why a Jewish startup might not be sustainable: the program is started by people who don’t have a good value proposition, but they launch anyway; the founders have a good idea but don’t know how to execute it; or there could be a good idea and the ability to execute on it, but not enough funding.
“If one-third of Jewish startups are around in five years, that is not bad,” Schwarz said. “That is the nature of startups.”
Schwarz said that investments don’t have to go to new projects. He noted that this shift in giving can also serve as an incentive to legacy organizations to create projects within their own organizations that “look like startups.” He cited the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine project, a movement for young Jewish leaders, influencers, and advocates who seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues, as such a project.
“It has all the markings of what an organization would look like if someone had the idea and started it outside of JDC – but if it had been started outside of JDC, it might have been harder to get it going,” Schwarz said. “This way, JDC could go to its internal funders for support.”
Schwarz noted that the majority of Jewish startups today tend to focus on one of five areas: social justice, spiritual practice, Jewish learning groups, Jewish prayer groups or sustainability and food justice. NPSCI is partnering with leaders in each of those sectors, bringing them together to learn from each other in hopes of creating more sustainable projects. His hope is to build an innovation accelerator within the year, to offer training and tools to these new programs, in hopes of ensuring their success.
“In the internet age, the economy is now privileged toward small startups,” said Schwarz. “It’s happening in the tech sector, with Airbnb and Uber – and it’s also happening in the religious space.”