Jewish Donors Focus More on Fundamental Necessities
Study Finds Jews Donate More to Poor
by Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Jews make more donations than people of other religions to “basic needs” causes, which are those that focus on food, shelter and other fundamental necessities, according to a recent study comparing philanthropic patterns among Americans of different faiths.
The study, by Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis economics professor Mark Ottoni Wilhelm, analyzed data that is collected every two years in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a survey funded primarily by the federal government. Ottoni Wilhelm’s study was published in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
He found that, overall, 29% of Americans give to “basic necessity organizations” in a single year.
Jews are 15% more likely than members of other faith groups to make any donation toward feeding and housing the poor, and they give at least 20% more in dollar terms overall, Ottoni Wilhelm says, because of the way tzedakah, or charity, is taught in Jewish literature and tradition compared with the way charity is framed in the Christian world.
“Things like empathic attachment [to other people], if giving is a part of your identity, and if you’re in a community where the norm is that you give, [those things] are part of Jewish philanthropy literature, but don’t line up so well with things I read in Christian denominational literature,” Ottoni Wilhelm told the Forward. “It’s differences of omission. In the Jewish literature, it’s a ‘must,’ not a ‘should.’ I didn’t find that in the Christian literature.”
William Rapfogel, CEO and executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which focuses on helping poor Jews with their basic needs, said that the study’s findings are “a little surprising.” Over the past two decades, Rapfogel told the Forward, he has seen a shift away from giving to help with basic needs and toward the kind of high-profile, non-Jewish causes, like the arts and public education, from which Jews were barred by social conventions in an earlier era.
But in the past 18 months or so, he has seen a small shift, toward giving more, among those committed to aiding the Jewish poor. “People who gave us modest gifts in the past increased them when the economy went south. People have shifted their thinking to helping people who are hurting because of a very difficult recession,” he said.
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, has observed the same trend, and said that marketing focusing on providing for the Jewish community’s basic needs has been increasingly effective since the recession began.
Yet Ottoni Wilhelm’s paper is based on data collected in the PSID from 2001 through 2005, the latest available when he wrote his paper.
He said he doubts, however, that if more recent data were available, giving patterns would change much. “This kind of behavior is not changing rapidly over time,” he explained.
Ruskay, too, contends that Judaism’s teachings transcend the current economic struggle. “From day one in our schools, synagogues and organizations, we assert that our deepest values reflect how we care about one another. In the midst of the Yom Kippur fast, the prophet Isaiah says the fast is about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. This linkage of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about each other is foundational,” he said.
According to Ruskay, a recent UJA-Federation population study showed that one in five Jews is “at or close to federal poverty lines, and the economic crisis has intensified awareness of it. Job loss is in all of our families and friendship networks.” The New York federation raised close to $160 million in 2009,
about one-third of which funded “caring and chesed” needs, which include basic necessities for the elderly and poor.
Because the PSID does not ask Jews about denominational affiliation, Ottoni Wilhelm was not able to break down his analysis that way. He compared Jewish giving with giving among Christians of all denominations, from mainline Protestants, like Presbyterians and Methodists, to Catholics and Mormons. (Ottoni Wilhelm is a member of a small Protestant denomination called Church of the Brethren.)
Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are lumped together in the PSID, in a category called “other,” from which reliable comparisons cannot be drawn, he wrote in the article.
His analysis also sheds light on the impact of interfaith marriage. He found that giving more is true only in families in which all the decision-makers are Jewish – that is, either both partners are Jewish or the household is headed by one person, who is Jewish – and also in households in which the man is Jewish but the woman is not.
In interfaith homes where the woman is Jewish and the man is not, he found no distinction between their philanthropy and that of Christian Americans in general. “There is no evidence that couples where the woman is Jewish, but the man not, give more,” he wrote in the journal article.
The PSID surveys 6,105 families nationwide every two years. The study began in 1968 and has followed the same families (with some adjustments to reflect changes in the American population) for the most part since then, he said, so that patterns can be tracked.
According to Ottoni Wilhelm, the data is not released until two years after its collection, so when he wrote his paper, the 2007 data had not yet been released. Information collected in the PSID last year will not be made available until 2011, he said.
His journal article looks at the families’ giving over three years, “so you can pick up people who give one year but not the next. This is one of the first times that’s been done,” Ottoni Wilhelm said.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.