Forever is far away, but new paradigms and eternal wisdom can guide us there

You can’t see it. You can’t hear it. You can’t feel it.

But occurring all around us is the largest transfer of American wealth in history. 

Millennials are predicted to receive or inherit as much as $90 trillion by 2045. That amount of money is the same as the combined GDP of every country on the planet. This wealth transfer is what gets financial planners up every morning — and it’s also what keeps Jewish communal foundation professionals up at night. This is because we know that even if the proportion of Jewish wealth making its way from one generation to the next is a small fraction of that total, it is still more than enough, when invested properly, to power our continental Jewish community almost indefinitely. The opportunity to capture as much of that transfer as possible from an aging donor base is the strategic challenge of a generation.

For decades now, Jewish community foundation leaders have been talking with people — certainly the wealthy, but also anyone who cares about our future — to consider leaving unrestricted endowments as part of their legacy and supporting their Jewish community forever. Federations do an often magnificent and sometimes heroic job of supporting the programs offered by agencies, synagogues, other organizations and the federations themselves, but that support depends year-to-year on the results of annual campaigns. An off-year could cripple any of these programs; a longer-term downturn could be fatal to several of them. 

Endowed gifts through a Jewish community foundation enable that community to go forward with increased confidence in the financial stability of the programs that make communities vibrant. In addition to appreciating their role in supporting baseline annual funding for federations and their beneficiaries, federations value this support because they increasingly find themselves in a continually evolving environment — one that demands immediate responses to urgent situations, often requiring the siphoning of money and resources away from other commitments. Without pausing to take a breath, federations have been serially socked by keeping people and programs alive through COVID; rescuing, resettling and sustaining Jews and others caught in the crossfire in Ukraine; and valiantly shouldering the sacred responsibility of supporting our sisters and brothers in a war with Hamas. Adding more relentless stress to the system, federations are bearing too much of the burden of providing adequate security to vulnerable institutions and coming up with an effective approach to confront growing hatred directed at Jews. Federations have no choice in deciding which crisis to address and which to leave to others. They hold the community together, and they hold the community’s trust that they will continue to do so.

With all of this, it is understandable that some federations can hardly plan a future beyond the short-term horizon. Foundations, which are designed to focus on a longer-term future, find themselves increasingly called upon to supplement annual funding that is not keeping pace with growing needs, and while they may use their high beams to look further down the road, their vision stretches only slightly ahead of federations’ right now. 

It may be time to bring federations and foundations closer together — or closer still in communities where they already enjoy mutual and reciprocal responsibilities. Consider the nature of the U.S. House of Representatives versus the Senate as they work together to craft and approve legislation. With its two-year terms, the House is designed for accountability, its occupants pushed to meet the continual and insistent needs of its constituents; this is akin to the task federation professionals face. Senators, however, have longer terms and staggered turnover, giving them more time to enact change. Similarly, foundations can serve as the “cooling saucer for the hot tea” of the community, taking on more of a strategic and long-term view of how the Jewish community may evolve. 

Increased unrestricted and/or designated funding, and perhaps an increased ownership role by the foundations, will be needed create or to reinforce the following key functions:

  1. A capacity for professional planning that anticipates longer-term ebbs and flows in Jewish communal needs. This would be an evergreen planning function that relies not only on demographic studies, but folds that information into a richer tableau of regional and other relevant data recognizing that Jewish communities exist within the general population as well as a geographic and geopolitical landscape that is larger and more complex than the one-dimensional boundaries drawn around them. When federations are contiguous, this function or some aspects of it may be performed regionally by those federations.
  1. An evaluation process that uncomplicatedly, objectively and independently appraises the impact of programmatic outcomes, not their outputs. This system would work longitudinally and constructively with program designers and practitioners to use feedback and other assessments to expand, improve or curtail programs over time, and would proactively share its findings transparently with other communities.
  1. A bold research and development arm, distinguished by the informed risk-taking approaches and creative thinking of its professional leaders experienced volunteers, and open to the participation of Jewish family and other foundations who are willing to be full partners. R&D will roll out initiatives that are deliberately designed to address needs or to develop opportunities identified by the planning and evaluation functions, with a free hand to learn through making mistakes supported by multi-year funding.

Federations and foundations will need to engage in cooperative fundraising, progressing toward a collaborative allocations/grants process (in cases where that is not already occurring) that shifts the emphasis away from the source of the funds to the purpose of the funding.

All federations and foundations are different. Recognizing and honoring this, my observations and suggestions are not necessarily meant to be descriptive or prescriptive, but to provoke further thought (and action). This triad of planning, R&D and evaluation will yield different results for different communities, and it would be presumptuous for anyone to suggest what priorities should rise to the top.

Except for one, without which all the rest fall: Jewish education. 

When engaging in tikkun olam (repairing the world), we have a user’s manual called the Torah, given to us by the Creator, so that we will know how to fix it properly. 

When pursuing justice, Torah principles guide us so that we do not stumble in our efforts or squander them on false pursuits. 

Rather than being guided by a vague sense of “Jewish values,” we have the Torah to clarify for us what those values are.

When supporting Israel, the Torah elevates us above the political fray, even beyond our historical connection to the land, to strive toward the exemplary society we envision taking root there.

When confronting antisemitism, the Torah animates us with the knowledge and pride to withstand any assault.

As gargantuan a sum as $90 trillion is, the Torah’s value is infinite. “My son,” Rabbi Yose ben Kisma says, “even if you were to give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere except in a place of Torah” (Avot, 6:9).

Financial planners seek to capture as much wealth as possible in its transfer; that is their job. The Jewish community does not have a job but a mission: To ensure that we capture and transfer our precious Torah as a life-sustaining force and an enduring source of wisdom for another generation, as previous generations generously gifted Torah to us.

Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, NJ, and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community.