Is Jewish Philanthropy on the Ropes?

by Chaim Katz

Just recently, I read an interesting report about the planned closure of several major Jewish philanthropies in the US. According to the data provided, by the year 2020, approximately $2 billion dollars in philanthropic funds will no longer be available for disbursement to Jewish organizations and causes in the US and Israel.

The reason behind this reduction has nothing to do with the financial downturn of many investment funds over the last few years. In fact, the foundations in question are quite solvent. Rather, the philanthropists who established these funds, having allocated a portion of their own personal wealth, attached specific stipulations as to the period of time that these funds must be disbursed.

Interviews with leaders of the Jewish non-profit community indicated cautious optimism that new foundations would be established to replace the old, thus preserving the sources of much-needed revenue for organizations. They based their predictions on the continuation of age-old Jewish traditions.

Personally, I am slightly more skeptical. I, too, have a strong involvement in the Jewish non-profit community. While I agree with my colleagues that new foundations will replace the old, I don’t believe that the existence of foundations is the primary worry. The true problem, as I see it, is whether these foundations will continue to support Jewish causes.

Over the last two decades, a highly disturbing trend has been developing amongst Jewish foundations, and it is gaining worrisome momentum.

As the Jewish community of the last century became materially successful, many Jewish foundations were established to enable Jewish wealth to be channeled to causes that required financial assistance. If Jews were hungry, funds were available to feed them. Jews requiring medical treatment beyond their financial means would receive care funded by various Jewish foundations. Quite simply, old fashioned Jewish values dictated that the wealthy helped their less fortunate fellow Jews.

However, life in Jewish America begat a new generation that inherited the old wealth and often contributed new funds as well. But, the new generation had a slightly different perspective on life. Their outlook was slightly less provincial and attempted to reflect a new set of values. While philanthropy was still important, the need to integrate within the greater American community had begun to replace the old Jewish values. Yes, we are Jews who shall continue to share our wealth. But, why should we limit our giving solely to the Jewish community? Are we not, first and foremost, proud citizens of this great nation?

In a highly disturbing report that I read a couple of years ago, statistics gathered from foundation databases indicate that more than 85% of Jewish foundations support only secular causes. Furthermore, when examining the allocation patterns of those foundations that do support Jewish causes, there has been a distinct change in the types of grants that foundations make.

The best example is that of the hungry Jews. The foundations’ founders provided food. Their descendants, although carrying on the giving tradition, prefer to fund programs that would reduce poverty, thus eliminating hunger. Indeed, this is no less an important cause. However, in the short term, many Jews will remain hungry while programs are being researched, planned, and implemented to reduce hunger-causing poverty.

When one combines the secularization of the foundations, and the long-term objective giving, one is faced with a situation that can become catastrophic in a very short period of time.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that Jews have an obligation to support general causes. After all, we are members of the general community and, as such, have communal responsibilities.

The problem, though, is that the responsibilities are not always reciprocal. Judaism is not a nationality. It is a religion that carries with it obligations. Whether one is religious or not, our Judaism ties us together as a nation. It always has and always will. History has demonstrated all too clearly that, after all is said and done, we can only rely upon ourselves to help one another.

So, while it is encouraging to see that new Jewish foundations are continuing to be established, I do hope that their charters will not ignore their Jewish heritage.

Yes, enabling the closure of Jewish soup kitchens will be a blessing. But, every business person knows that you don’t close the doors of a store while you still have many customers waiting outside.

Chaim Katz has lived in Israel since 1987. A native of Toronto, Canada, Chaim’s career has spanned three countries and a variety of positions within the private and business sectors. He currently devotes his time to writing as well as operating a Canadian charitable foundation that supports various projects in Israel.