How We Can Fund A Vibrant Jewish Future

“Health Care Reform” for the American Jewish Community: How We Can Fund A Vibrant Jewish Future

by Kim Hirsh

Here is a conundrum of the American Jewish community at the start of the 21st century:

We have a sickness that threatens our very survival: rampant assimilation.

We have discovered the most effective preventive medicine: day school education, Jewish camping, and Israel experiences. (Extensive research has shown that these childhood experiences lead most effectively to committed Jewish adults.)

We have the capacity to pay for the curatives: We are more wealthy and powerful than ever in the history of the Jewish people. One highly conservative estimate puts philanthropic giving by Jews at $400 billion over the next 50 years.*

We are smart, well organized, pragmatic, and pretty darn good at what we do: Jewish federations raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually and have $13 billion in assets in their foundations. When Israel – or Haiti – is in crisis, we respond, seemingly overnight, with tremendous focus and efficiency to turn around tens of millions of dollars in aid and effective advocacy.

So, why can’t the American Jewish community figure out how to pull these pieces together, remedy its illness, and secure its own future?

The good news is that over the past decade, we have seen tremendous progress in focusing significant expertise, philanthropic resources, and advocacy on this critical triumvirate of day school education, Jewish camp and Israel experiences. The most compelling example, of course, is the overwhelming success of Birthright Israel, which has gone from 0 to 225,000 young people in 10 years.

But even these highly laudable efforts are not nearly enough. Increasingly, the rising cost of living Jewishly, combined with general apathy or lack of awareness among Jewish families, are leaving too many of our youngsters without these life-transforming experiences.

We need to raise billions of dollars nationally – and raise much more awareness among young families of high-quality Jewish experiences – in order to ensure that the vast majority of American Jewish families can and will choose at least one of these opportunities for their children.

I believe that there is nothing that the organized Jewish community can do today that is more important than securing quality Jewish experiences for as many Jewish children as possible. Fifty years from now, what would be the point of having a Jewish communal infrastructure if there are very few Jews? And who will be there to support and advocate for Israel?

The only way to tackle this monumental task is a fundamental rethinking of how communities approach fundraising, and how we reach out and engage young families. The broader community is going to need to accept that federations and major Jewish philanthropic organizations cannot do this alone. This is going to require involvement by individuals across communities, particularly those who have been touched by these experiences and understand their power.

Over the last four years, the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, and our Federation’s endowment arm, the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, have raised more than $30 million in permanent funds to enhance and secure Jewish day school education, Jewish camping and Birthright Israel. We are poised to raise many millions more in the months and years to come. We have done this through carefully planned, targeted fundraising; through committing time and resources to listening to donors and engaging with them in family philanthropy; and through putting the institutions themselves to work to secure their own futures. We have expanded the role of Federation into new areas of fundraising – without diminishing the primary importance of the UJA annual campaign in our community.

We continue to learn as we go, but here are four key lessons to date:

1. Targeted fundraising will strengthen, not weaken, the Jewish community:

Some communities have been reluctant to move too boldly into fundraising that is targeted for specific causes out of fear that this will weaken the “Community Chest,” the Federation annual campaign. But we have found that strategic targeted fundraising is anything but a zero sum game. We sit with donors and their families and discuss their philanthropic vision and priorities. These are exciting, inspiring conversations that can lead to major, transformative gifts in addition to annual giving for the UJA campaign.(In fact, some donors to these targeted causes have actually increased their gifts to the UJA annual campaign because they are happy we are listening and responding to their interests.)

Beyond strengthening our Jewish future, these targeted efforts also strengthen the federation today in so many ways: We are reaching out to Russian Jewish families through Jewish camp incentive grants for their children; we are connecting with young families far outside our usual network through offering them PJ Library books – a non-threatening “first Jewish touch” that can lead to other Jewish engagement; and through day school and Jewish camp fundraising, we are welcoming new leadership and new ideas and energy into our Federation system.

2. Teach the organizations how to “fish” – and accept that some will fare better than others:

We have found that the real heart of targeted major gifts and endowment fundraising lies at the institutional level – with individuals and families who have been touched by the institution over years and decades. With day schools, for example, this means parents, current and former board members and past presidents, alumni, current and past parents, and grandparents. We have utilized the expertise and resources of the Federation to help the day schools raise their own endowment funds, all housed at our Jewish Community Foundation.

What this means is that every institution will not fare equally. Some will simply do better than others. This may not seem “fair,” but it is a far better outcome than not tapping into the power of the donors’ ties to individual institutions. We need to work with those institutions willing to dig in and do the hard work of reaching out to their own constituencies and building self-sustaining funding, and therefore a strong and stable future, for themselves.

3. Focus on quality – and market it effectively to young families:

In MetroWest we focus not only on making Jewish experiences more affordable, but also on excellence – whether through enhancing the science programs in our day schools, or through helping young families find the perfect specialized sports or arts programs for their children at a Jewish camp. Jewish parents demand no less than the best, and our children deserve it. (What I refer to as the “warm, fuzzy Jewish” pitch works well only with the truly committed families – and we have them already!)

We need to reach out to young Jewish families in every way possible. A key part of our Jewish camp effort, for example, is having a full-time Jewish camp manager “selling” Jewish camp through Twitter, Facebook and other social networking techniques, and acting as a helpful guide to young families out in the community – in synagogues, living rooms and school parking lots.

4. Everyone has to play a part:

While major philanthropists and federations can lead the way here, this is too big of a task for them to tackle alone. It is time for large numbers of day school alumni, Jewish camp alumni, and yes, even new Birthright alumni – as well as the families of these alumni – to step up in large numbers and support these experiences for this generation and the next.

Spreading Jewish continuity “preventive medicine” across communities is a monumental challenge. Fortunately, we know what works, and we have the capacity, knowledge and largely untapped resources to make this possible. If we can harness the commitment, vision and leadership to make this happen, we can secure a healthy, strong and vibrant Jewish community into the future.

* Experts in the field of philanthropy estimate we are in the midst of a massive transfer of wealth in American society, conservatively estimated at $45 trillion between 1998 and 2052. Of this, an estimated $21 trillion is expected for lifetime charitable giving and bequests. (Paul G. Schervish and John J. Havens, Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, Boston College) Thus, calculating the Jewish community at roughly 2 percent of the overall population, this would mean charitable giving of $400 billion by Jews between 1998-2052. This is considered an extremely conservative estimate because it does not adjust for Jews’ above average socio-economic status.

Kim Hirsh is Development Officer with the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, the planned giving and endowment arm of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.