Jewish Philanthropic Engagement in Pew’s Shadow

Might Jewish philanthropy, in itself and when executed for maximum impact, be a positive way of reinforcing Jewish identity?

by Rebecca Neuwirth

The Pew Research Center’s fascinating “Portrait of Jewish Americans” has spawned a thousand conversations touching on a broad range of issues from the impact of intermarriage to the centrality of comedy to Jewish identity.

Yet for all the robust debates taking place at the moment it seems like one of the survey’s key finding has been overlooked: philanthropy.

The data clearly demonstrated that philanthropic pursuits are one of the most popular ways for Jews to express their Jewishness. An astounding 56 percent of the survey’s participants, a slight majority, said they made a donation to a Jewish charity or cause in 2012. The numbers go up to nearly two-thirds when you look at households with incomes of $150,000 and above.

No doubt, the Jewish community’s vigorous and historic fundraising efforts contribute to this success and provide some kind of informal Jewish education to a much greater number of community members.

These findings beg the question: might Jewish philanthropy, in itself and when executed for maximum impact, be a positive way of reinforcing Jewish identity? If the answer is yes, how might we foster it?

Here are two models that, based on my experience, promote Jewish community and identity:

1. Family-Centered: Some of the best Jewish thought leaders today have encouraged families to examine philanthropy together and, by extension, encourage an honest exchange on Jewish values, family history, and experience. Hard conversations can emerge in these settings, and they are not always neatly resolved. Young people sometimes embrace more universal causes and draw universal messages from the Jewish experience, while their parents or grandparents may be more prone to Jewish-centered giving and pursuits.

When I directed AJC ACCESS – and we examined hard-hitting issues around Israel, the peace process, and Jewish continuity – I found that the inclusion of different generations in respectful dialogue was unique for the time and valued. As someone with aging parents I personally see the extraordinary value of engaging as adults with our elders on equal footing about issues we care about.

2. Peer-Focused: Though it is a well-known and tested method, small groups of like-minded philanthropists pooling their talents and resources towards one issue can help fuel change, inspire out-of-the-box solutions, and forge Jewish identity. At JDC Ambassadors, we call these groups Impact Networks. Members learn and engage some aspect of the exciting and challenging work that JDC does on the ground in more than 70 countries worldwide. Together, they offer funding and know-how to meaningfully support programs.

One of our impact networks focuses on the reemergence of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In places where Jewish life was almost extinguished by the Nazis and thereafter forbidden for decades by the Communists, people are still discovering their Jewish roots. They are then turning to the Jewish community, in some cases newly emerged 20 years ago, for support and guidance.

The network is asking some big questions about how to tackle the challenge of community development and leadership training: How can we best identify young leaders for the next generation of Jewish Europe? What will the old-new communities look like? And how can we work together to strengthen and connect them?

What we have found is that such groups can contribute to our work by reinforcing the value of global Jewish responsibility and of working together for a common end.

When I traveled between Berlin and Budapest with a group of philanthropists of different ages this summer, it wasn’t the site visits, program details, or the impact conveyed that made all the difference (however important the role they played). It was the conversations, true and enthusiastic, that allowed us to consider how we could best connect our values with our philanthropic work.

And it was the confluence of first-hand experiences, a sense of family and community, and a forum to connect with other like-minded individuals that inspired commitment. Such an experience makes us more appreciative of our own blessings and helps us realize our immense ability to do good in the world. They can also drive a more meaningful connection to our own values as Jews, global citizens, and human beings.

Rebecca Neuwirth is Director of JDC’s Ambassadors, which is holding its Global Symposium in Manhattan on October 15th. For more information, visit: www.jdc.org/ambassadors2013