Australian Jewish Philanthropy; A Golden Time

Australiaby Mark Joel

The view from the penthouse occupying the whole floor of an inner suburban skyscraper is breathtaking. The patriarch of one of Melbourne’s wealthiest families takes me on a tour, pointing out the sights from the 360 degree panorama. I am struck by the opulence and sheer scale of this apparent downsized space which he, a widower now resides in alone. I had initially asked for a 15 minute meeting where I had hoped to pitch the Jewish Care story. Ninety minutes later, I had received a comprehensive account of the patriarch’s story of survival, immigration and business success; and a complaint about the amount of tax he was regularly paying.

In the meantime, in the lodge of a game reserve in southern Africa, the sounds of a traditional Jewish wedding echo late into the night. At this “destination wedding” – designed in part to avoid the scale and expense of the “average” Melbourne wedding – guests have flown in to celebrate this low key event. On a conservative basis, the hosts and their guests have spent well in excess of $500,000 (and trust me when I say that this is a conservative estimate) in attending and holding this event.

These are not isolated stories, circumstances or events. It is also not about an anti-wealth, Marxist crusade.

But the truth of the matter is that while Professor Andrew Markus’ GEN08 study revealed that almost 20% of the Victorian Jewish population are living at or below the poverty line, at the other end of the spectrum, the community has never been wealthier. And that means that the breadth and depth of material wealth has increased exponentially in the last 2 generations in an unprecedented manner. It is not just the penniless, Holocaust survivors who arrived with little or no education and certainly no inherited wealth, who transformed their individual circumstances in an unprecedented manner, it is now their children and grandchildren and the next influx of immigrants including Israelis, Jews of the Former Soviet Union and South Africans who have taken what this great country has to offer and thrived beyond their wildest dreams. There are now more millionaires with extraordinary wealth at their disposal than ever before in the history of the Melbourne Jewish community (and I suspect the same applies to Sydney too).

And yet, the same laments can be heard from communal leaders, activists and members as have been heard for many years. Why can’t our roof bodies be properly funded and engage in desperately needed communal planning? Why is Jewish education so unaffordable? Why are 20% of the community living with financial risk and uncertainty? Where are the programs and facilities for our post tertiary young people?

As Daniel Petre, the former head of Microsoft in Australia found in a report he commissioned in 2008, affluent Americans currently give around 10-15% of their net wealth to philanthropy while their Australian counterparts seem to be allocating less than 3%. And on an income basis, Americans are giving almost 4% of their income to charities, while average wealthy Australians give less than half of one per cent. It is likely that American death duties tax plays some role in the higher level of giving but it is only one explanation. It is also true that Australian Jews are over represented, or at least certainly beyond their relative numbers, in the philanthropy stakes and indeed there are some truly admirable role models whose names will be familiar to us all. But where are the Australian Jewish equivalents of Andrew Forrest who has joined The Giving Pledge – a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy – a movement founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet? How many of our wealthy can say that they give anywhere close to 10% of their net income (as Jewish law requires) to charity? Where is the philanthropic leadership from those who have built their wealth as a part of this hospitable and benign society which has for the main part, proven to be a “goldene medinah” beyond imagination? Where is the moral leadership which says that I have money beyond what I need even for the most luxurious of lifestyles and I now want to give back so that I can make a difference to someone else? Do we really think that the endless accumulation of wealth is in fact the best thing for our children and grandchildren?

If we believe in Jewish community and continuity, then the good news is that we have more capacity than at any time in history to invest in our growth and development. The challenge is whether we will respond in a meaningful manner or continue to give these concepts mere lip service. In the words of Winston Churchill “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Mark Joel is the General Manager Development at Jewish Care Victoria. Together with David Werdiger and Karen Mahlab, Mark is part of a panel entitled Australian Jewish philanthropy; “Who Gives a Buck?” to take place at LimmudOz.