A Tale of 2 Fields: Lessons from the Jewish GDP

Inspired leadership that is focused and aligned can change the course of Jewish life in North America.

By Jeffrey R. Solomon

Mark Perlman and The Jewish Week, deserve credit for pursuing the data that tells the financial story of the Jewish nonprofit world. While there are many challenges in the use of this data, including identifying all Jewish entities, unusual events in the year’s revenues streams, and challenges in categorization, these data did provide an opportunity for reflection and analysis. The overall picture, as previously reported, tells us that from the year just before the great recession (2006/2007) until the latest available data (2011/2012), the Jewish GDP was reduced by $1 billion. While this may not be surprising given the results of the Pew Study and other things we know about the rapidly changing American Jewish community, there are many lessons that can be learned from this data. I would have us look at two fields that have dramatically different results.

Approximately a hundred years ago, there was an attempt at creating an American Kehillah along the lines of mandatory communities well known to European Jewry. The very nature of the American dream and its history prevented that from happening. At the same time an American version of the Kehillah emerged. The Federation system became one of the most successful, profoundly impactful group of organizations in the history of philanthropy. Combining American philanthropic and volunteer mores with timeless Jewish values organized through a hierarchical structure of community, industry, and other affinity groups, Federations raised tremendous amounts of money for local and global Jewish needs. To replicate the inflation-adjusted best year, 1948, the New York UJA-Federation annual campaign, would have to be raising over $1 billion per year from one out of every two Jewish households. Actual results are but 15% of that historical high. However, in this century, despite our aspirations for community, individual, custom-made approaches in so much of life tend to have become the norm. We have given up broadcasting for narrow casting. Department stores have become boutiques. Our mobile playlists have replaced radio.

This is evidenced in the results of the GDP with regard to the 157 Federations*. Of those, only 37 have had increases from 2006-7 to 2011-12; 15 of which were increases of more than 20% reflecting real dollar increase. At the same time 120 had had decreases; 96 of which had had decreases in excess of 20%. There are two theorems with regard to those Federations that have seen increases. The first is reflected in the only large city which has had an increase: Boston. The Boston Federation has deemphasized its annual campaign as it has focused far more on becoming a philanthropic partner of Jews in the Boston area, working closely with them to identify mutual priorities, as against the traditional annual campaign in which people give to a community pot, distributed by the Federation allocations mechanism. The other major area of growth has been in the South and the Sunbelt especially smaller Jewish communities, where population growth is often occurring or Jewish community takes on a more central role in the life of its residents.

It is worth contrasting this experience to the field of camping. Two inspired philanthropists created the Foundation for Jewish Camp, in the belief that Jewish camping had the potential to transform young Jews. As with Birthright Israel, they believed a transformative immersion experience has the capacity to change the direction of one’s life and provide a sense of Jewish identity, meaning and community. Of the 33 Jewish nonprofit camps in the GDP study, 24 have had increases from the 2006-7 revenue reports; 18 of which had increases of more than 20%. Quite a few of these were significantly more than 20% as much as 80%, and, in one case 107%. Only 9 have had reductions in revenues; none of which were more than 20%. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has reenergized this field. Its lay and professional leaders developed strategies for today’s needs and its range of services includes the professionalization of camps, modernization of the capital infrastructure, and providing financial incentives for parents to select a Jewish camp. There are clear goals and objectives that are continuously monitored and measured. It is a wonderful story of improving Jewish life in the 21st century.

These contrasts tell us that inspired leadership that is focused and aligned can change the course of Jewish life in North America. It is the community’s challenge to identify those strategies that are transformative and relevant to the lifestyle of 21st century American Jewish life, where every Jew is a Jew by choice; where compelling programs can attract and transform and where our dreams can exceed our memories.

*As a result of several mergers, there are currently (Jan. 2015) 152 federations.

Jeffrey Solomon is President at The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.