Donors love dead Jews: That could be a good thing for Jewish education

In Short

Donors respond to dead Jews and fundraisers know it. Fundraisers also know that there are other compelling Jewish causes that require urgent and increased funding, but nothing mobilizes donors like a crisis.

Antisemitism. Holocaust denial. White supremacists. Vicious vandalism. Jews shot.

The reaction in the Jewish community is swift and powerful. We call upon our allies for support. We demand that the government perform its primary function in protecting life and property. We raise money.

A random scan of Jewish federation websites confirms that most of them lead the messaging on their landing pages with themes focusing on combating antisemitism and building up security. Appeals from federations, as well as the traditional and newly emerging defenders of the Jews call for funds to fight antisemitism. Donors are responding, as they should. 

Donors respond to dead Jews and fundraisers know it. Fundraisers also know that there are other compelling Jewish causes that require urgent and increased funding, but nothing mobilizes donors like a crisis.

Except if the crisis is about Jewish education. 

Jewish community leaders acknowledge — in their heads, in their hearts and in public pronouncements — that the future of our people relies upon enduring and increasing communal investment in Jewish education. But aside from baseline investment (mostly stagnant or shrinking allocations to Jewish day schools), and symbolic, even if that much, investment (funding for supplemental schools, Hillels and Jewish summer camps), the public posturing about the essential importance of Jewish education does not translate into the significant financial support required. Every once in a while we will witness a philanthropic flash, a large infusion of funds into a local education initiative. These investments, rather than reflective of a systemic communal commitment, are virtually all made by individuals or by family foundations. And even when a proclamation encouraging support of Jewish education is offered from the institutional Jewish community, the donor response pales in comparison to when its passions are ignited by the prospect of dead Jews.”

Random, ad hoc infusions of donor designated funds for Jewish education, as generous as they are and as welcome as they will always be, are neither reliable as an income stream nor as a long-term growth strategy. We are in an ecosystem suffering from nutritional imbalance; Jewish educational programs are struggling financially while a vigorous cash response continues to flow to the institutions and programs that combat antisemitism and educate against Holocaust denial.  


Holocaust education in the public sphere produces uneven results. Although Holocaust education programs are mandatory in many states and similar programs are growing in universities, more than half of all non-Jews and almost two-thirds of Americans ages 18-40 do not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust (Pew, American Trends, 2020); 11% of this young cohort — 19% in New York — believe that Jews were the cause of the Holocaust (Claims Conference, US Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, 2020).


An emphasis on universal Holocaust awareness over the years was the right thing to do, with the noblest of intentions. While it is unclear empirically how applying multiples of money to educate about antisemitism reduces threats to our safety, these efforts have produced an undeniable and profoundly troubling impact … among Jews.

When the Pew Study asked American Jews what was “essential to them to being Jewish” in 2013, 76% said “remembering the Holocaust.” When asked again in 2020, the percentage increased to 81%.  It was the number one answer both times. 

Our viability as a Jewish people is threatened not only by external enemies but by our own bizarrely warped understanding of who we are. We have done this to ourselves. Our obsession with antisemitism is smothering our core sense of joy, meaning, purpose and our ability to successfully and effectively overcome and outlast Jew hatred.  

When God and Abram met for the first time, God did not say, “I am going to make you the leader of a great people and your mission will be to fight antisemitism.” That is not our purpose as a people.  We are the descendants of that Divine encounter. We are the heirs to the covenant of kedusha born on that day. We are the bearers of the privilege to infuse holiness into the world. We are invested with the blessing to pass these ideals along to our children.


Most people who drive cars will agree that society benefits from efficient public transportation. Most people who are economically self-sufficient would agree that there is a societal obligation to help those who cannot help themselves. Governments, acting as the collective conscience of the people, leverage the public’s self-interest to support programs that are vital to the public good, but that are weak in generating the financial support necessary.  

Every time we fill our cars with gas or drive through a toll, a portion of those payments is directed by legislation to support public transportation.  

Revenue from cigarette purchases likewise support programs that provide health insurance to children.  

Lottery proceeds are directed to help people who are addicted to gambling.

Creative examples abound of how community leaders establish and maintain consistent and reliable investment in important and unsexy public interventions with funds generated by the public’s spending on needs and desires in adjacent areas.

Let us set out to do the same by recognizing the groundswell of support to combat antisemitism as an opportunity to channel some of that very same impulse to protect Jewish lives towards safeguarding Jewish education.

The agreement that is created by a federation, communal foundation or any organization to accept new and additional funds to combat antisemitism, to promote Holocaust education or to strengthen security would contain this language,

“The (organization) retains the right to allocate 9% of the funds donated or generated through endowment on an annual basis as additional and not as replacement funds to support Jewish education.”

Why would donors who are laser-focused on fighting antisemitism, promoting Holocaust education, and strengthening security agree to subsidize Jewish education? Because for generations Jewish education has been subsidizing the communal fight against antisemitism, the promotion of Holocaust education and protecting the Jewish people. The leaders of these battles in federations, Jewish defense organizations and Holocaust education/remembrance efforts emerged from Jewish day schools, supplemental schools, Hillels and summer camps. Day schools, supplemental schools, Hillels and summer camps prepare people to take leadership on these issues, never asking a cent to focus on these issues. It is their purpose to do so as a part of teaching learners to be active and responsible Jewish communal citizens. Some of those citizens are the very same people who are stepping forward now to make these donations.

Sophisticated donors who wish to combat antisemitism, promote Holocaust education, and strengthen security will recognize and appreciate this. Some may be in a position to bring this change about when contributing to institutions that will be reluctant to adopt this strategy. Their grant letter may include language like this,

“Acceptance of this gift indicates an agreement by the (organization) that 9% of the funds donated or generated through endowment on an annual basis will be used by the (organization) as additional and not as replacement funds to support Jewish education.”

The “Jewish education” that will benefit from this new and ongoing flow of funds will be defined as non-capital educational programs, other than antisemitism or Holocaust education, that are created, implemented and evaluated by Jewish educators from academic and experiential Jewish educational venues and designed to be employed in any or all of those venues for learners of any age. Beyond this, the application of the funds to existing programs that require additional support, or to new initiatives that are being tried and tested, is the prerogative of the institution that accepts the donation.

It is important that we know the Holocaust story. The better we know that story, the better we can tell that story.  

But it is more important that we know the Jewish story. The better we know that story, the better we can live that story.

Robert Lichtman draws upon his deep professional experiences to share his strategic thinking about the Jewish community.  He lives in West Orange, N.J.