Jewish Philanthropy and Planning – Which Comes First?

by Mara Koven-Gelman

Recent articles in the Jewish press have highlighted a conundrum in the world of Jewish philanthropy. It appears that while the North American Jewish community is hugely successful in fundraising and asset accumulation (Forward Series on the $26 Billion Bucks, Josh Nathan-Kazis, March 28, April 4, April 11,) there is funding crisis in Jewish and secular non-for profits (review of 2014 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, eJewishPhilanthropy, April 8.) Adding to this is the perennial priority issue of Jewish assimilation looming large, especially after the 2013 Pew Study on U.S. Jews.

The question remains, if we are so philanthropic, why is there increased need for social services for the vulnerable and are we correctly identifying and addressing communal priorities?

There is a disconnect between fundraising wealth and communal needs. Have we stopped to ask what is the best communal outcome or impact? And what are our priorities? Are serving basic needs like food, shelter, health care just as important as ensuring a low-income family has access to Jewish education?

These are seemingly solid planning questions but where are the planners to address them? With the closing of several national Jewish organizations, and the shrinking of planning departments in intermediate-sized and some large Federations, who is planning, researching and working with lay committee’s to recommend change?

Many large federations do have planning departments, but medium or small cities either cannot afford or de-prioritized them. Large family foundations sometimes fund research and planning projects and although this is visionary, they are limited in scope and usually focus on the Foundation’s select priorities.

Longitudinal studies offer some insight into the impact of Jewish philanthropic funds. For example, the Taglit-Birthright Impact Study, performed by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, demonstrates increased positive attitudes and behaviors towards Israel. It can also highlight participants desire to marry someone Jewish over those who didn’t attend a Birthright trip. Without concrete definitions of “success” and metrics with which to measure them, we will never know if our fundraising is addressing our communal priorities.

Is a successful outcome for Jewish engagement a decrease in intermarriage rates, more Hanukkah candles being lit in intermarried homes with Christmas trees, or an increase in Jewish literacy or giving of Tzedakah?

By way of comparison, in the cancer research field large debates exist over the worthiness of annual mammography to screen for breast cancer or PSA tests for prostate cancer. In health population studies, the impact of these screens on the incidence of cancer is inconclusive. But if one mammogram highlights one woman’s tumor and she decides for treatment that saves and extends her life to age 90, the positive impact in that one person’s life is 100%.

Likewise, the child who receives scholarships to day school and Jewish camp and stays connected through a university Hillel, marries a Jew, raises his or her children as Jews and becomes an active community member is greatly impacted. We would all agree those charitable dollars were well spent. How many connected children is a success?

Data from the Pew Study suggests Jews who feel positive about knowing the difference between a mensch and a mooch are not necessarily participating in Jewish specific activities. It appears we are weakening from a national perspective, but do we know this is true at a local level? It is tricky moving from the general to the specific when making policy or funding decisions.

There are many examples of communities that have exploded in Jewish programming despite lack of funding or shrinking populations. Detroit’s 90-year old Isaac Agree’s Downtown Synagogue has recently experienced a 40% increase in new visitors. Sixty per cent of their board is under age 40 years old and 70% live in downtown Detroit.

No one has an exact estimate of Jewish population of Boulder, Colorado, but professionals say there are 7500 Jewish households, with an 85% intermarriage rate. Regardless, they are building a brand new 44,000 square foot JCC including a new Jewish pre-school, teen and adult learning center. They even reached their pre-construction goal of $18 million.

Buffalo’s recently published community study reveals 88% of Jews attend a Seder and light Hanukkah candles. A downtown synagogue attracts over 60 people to monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services where 25 Hillel students lowered the city’s Jewish median age of 60 years old (although it was only in one room.)

Gary Rosenblatt introduces an excellent point about priority setting in a recent column (The Jewish Week, Move over Millennials, March 16, 2014.) He highlights the fact (post-Pew) that we are focusing on reaching Millennials when perhaps it should be a larger cohort (the Baby-Boomers) who have the resources (time, money, motivation) to make a valuable difference in the lives of Jews in North America. Which would be more impactful?

I once asked Holocaust Survivor (and survivor of the ill-fated USS St. Louis), Dr. Sol Messinger, what he thought were the most important Jewish communal priorities? Reach out to those who are somewhat affiliated or those outliers who may never re-join the “tribe?” Messinger emphatically stated, “you have to do it all, we need them all.”

The organized Jewish community is at a crossroads – yet again. Where are our priorities, in the face of billions in philanthropy, assimilation and poverty? The answer only can be local planning. Think globally (Pew looks at the US Jewish population as a whole) but act locally (set priorities and goals in your own community). Several larger cities are doing or planning demographic studies: Boston, New Mexico (state-wide) Miami, St. Louis and Seattle.

Whether it is a community study, a focus group or fundraising campaign directed to impacting a stated priority, it is critical to determine local priorities, define a range of successes that can be modified and reflect on successes. The time is now to commit essential Federation and foundation funds to re-assess communal priorities.

Mara Koven-Gelman is a Jewish communal planning consultant, most recently the lead staff for the 2013 Buffalo Jewish Community Study. She has worked in planning, fundraising and grant writing in Boston, Toronto and London, Ontario. She can be reached at m.kovengelman@gmail.com