Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish Philanthropy: Opportunities for New Partnerships

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Jeffrey Solomon and Alon Friedman

… this focus on Peoplehood will bring together the private philanthropic world with the considerable resources of the communal world as their missions and objectives overlap. 

1. The Philanthropy Shift:
One PeopleGlobal to Many Communities Local” 

Among the many headlines in Jewish philanthropy over the past two decades is a major transition from communal philanthropy, and, perhaps, the largest and most sophisticated voluntary educational and welfare network, to a broad range of initiatives and incubators started and funded by private philanthropy, both in North America and Israel. Think about Birthright Israel, PJ Library, Moishe House, Honeymoon Israel, Sefaria, Open Table, the renaissance of Hillel, Jewish camping, and countless other examples that impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and the unique role that private philanthropy is playing in their formation and expansion. 

Contrast this with the shrinking support from Federations and other central bodies to their beneficiaries. While many of these beneficiaries, including such precious global assets such as the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were accustomed to the overwhelming share of their budgets coming from Federation allocations, they and virtually every Jewish Family Service, JCC, Home for the Aged are competing for private philanthropic support. While some will argue that the increased “market” nature of this philanthropy leads to more demanding and better outcomes, others note that the marketplace is the least appropriate place to determine communal priorities. 

In the 1970’s the key theme of communal campaigns was “We are One;” the simple notion was that we are a unified people and untoward actions in the former Soviet Union required a response in the United States; risks to Israelis required Australians to use philanthropy to help plug holes; antisemitism in France was a problem for all of us. The limitations of space preclude a full analysis of the reasons this communal culture did not survive. Suffice it to say, we have moved from “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh” (All Jews are responsible, one for another) to “Im Ein Ani Li Mi LI” (if I am not for myself, who will be for me), a sense of selfishness that tends to be hyper-local. We have so often heard that there is no longer a need to focus philanthropy for the benefit of Israel, because of its economic miracle. Again, allocations over time tell a dramatic story of social change within the Jewish community. 

2. Sharing a Past is Not Enough. Do We Know Each Other in the Present? Are We Securing a Common Future? 

While American philanthropy to Israel continues at a pace of $2 billion annually, it disguises a far more basic issue. What responsibility do we have to one another? Do I as a Diaspora Jew have any right to opine on policies and practices in Israel? If Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, with each Jew having a stake therein, how do we manifest that? What Israeli school child is taught about Jewish communities outside of Israel? Why have American philanthropists underwritten 250 university faculty in the field of Israel studies, while in Israel, there are only two faculty devoted to Jewish Peoplehood or Diaspora Jewish Studies? Why do 50% of Israeli High School students visit Auschwitz, and never stop en-route to visit a living Jewish community? 

During the past several years, we have witnessed much conversation about the increasing rift of Israel and the Jewish world. While the data is not definitive about this assertion, actions such as passage of the Nation State Law and some harsh and unprecedented criticism of Israel by the major Jewish movements in the US are but two examples of increasing alienation. Ironically, many of the initiatives noted above are aimed at the symptoms of this rift. 

The authors approach this issue from a different perspective. We are products of our identities and cultures. Growing up in Modiin is different than growing up in Los Angeles. If we wish to bridge these cultural differences and socialize our children to see the Jewish people as their extended family, we need to work at this in a far more serious and strategic way than we have in the past. 

3. Peoplehood Based Philanthropy: Knowing -> Caring -> Committed 

Enter “Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance,” an initiative in which a group of Israelis and North Americans are defining a data driven set of strategies for a generation-long effort to build on the concept of Peoplehood and cross border efforts to build a more global identity. 

Imagine a Jewish world in which we create a common idea of core curriculum and knowledge so that an Israeli 18-year-old has a common set of understandings with an 18-year-old South African. Imagine a “reverse Taglit” where Israeli young adults get to experience Jewish communal life in North American cities and develop the same meaningful Mifgash relationships that are the most popular attribute of Birthright Israel. Imagine young Israelis who experienced the many models of Schlihut standing up in the Knesset to lobby for or against bills that impact upon Jews outside of Israel, because they see them as part of their family. 

Imagine questions on the standard Israeli high school examinations about Communities outside of Israel. Imagine Israeli and North American young adults undertaking serious Tikkun Olam efforts in the developing world on behalf of the Jewish people. Imagine young American Jews who are as familiar with, and proud of the Israeli Declaration of Independence as they are of the American Declaration of Independence. 

There is so much potential to turn this challenge into an opportunity. Philanthropy has built an ecosystem that deals with the negative consequences of the absence of Peoplehood notions. Instead of fixing the failures, it can now build a platform to work with the brilliant resources that touch on these issues. Whether national institutions, research think tanks, program operators or foundations, existing organizations can be optimized for this effort. Enter hopes to build on developing strategy, amplifying this work, coordinating efforts, evaluating outcomes and finding additional resources that result in the progress needed. Most relevant, this focus on Peoplehood will bring together the private philanthropic world with the considerable resources of the communal world as their missions and objectives overlap. 

The idea of Jewish Peoplehood needs to move beyond a small group of academics and practitioners who devote their daily lives to many of its manifestations. The philanthropic changes we are witnessing throughout the Jewish world represents the opportunity to dramatically move this issue to the center of contemporary Jewish life throughout the world. The ability to blend private philanthropy with communal resources is an opportunity waiting for the right issue at the right time. Concerns about symptoms of a rift becomes the right issue. Now, is the right time. 

Dr. Jeffrey Solomon serves as a senior adviser to Chasbro Investments, the family office of Charles Bronfman. He served as the CEO of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies for the past 23 years. Prior to that he was the Senior Vice President and COO for UJA Federation of New York. Author of two books and more than a hundred articles, he sits on the boards of four major American foundations. 

Alon Friedman is the founding executive director of “Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance,” a new coalition initiated by Charles Bronfman and Jeff Solomon that aims to strengthen relations and mutual commitment between Israel and Jewish communities around the world. Alon previously served as director general of Hillel Israel, associate director of “Masa Israel Journey” and a central Shaliach (emissary) on campuses throughout north America. 

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.