Make a Big Bet

What are the financial decisions we, as a Jewish community, are making now that will have significant consequences for the future?

By Elie Kaunfer

Once upon a time, King David faced a dilemma. He had stored up massive amounts of wealth, but didn’t know how to spend it best. He was faced with immediate, pressing needs – a population struggling with poverty and famine. But he decided to hold onto his wealth, waiting to spend it on the as-yet-unbuilt Holy Temple. According to the legend, the decision to wait was disastrous. The immediate needs were not solved, and God determined that Solomon, not David, should build the Temple – without David’s treasure. God said to David: “My children are dying of hunger and you horde the money to build a building?!” (Pesikta Rabbati 6, ed. Braude pp. 129-130).

What are the financial decisions we, as a Jewish community, are making now that will have significant consequences for the future? Are we holding on too much, waiting for the proverbial Temple, when pressing needs go unfunded today?

I suggest that, overall, we spend too much time thinking about how to allocate too little money. In a period of unprecedented wealth in the Jewish community, we dole out dribs and drabs, saving the vast majority of our riches for another day. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, some of the most impactful nonprofits launched in this generation are characterized by significant investments of cash. I want to offer three examples:

Birthright Israel is the most obvious case study. With more than $90 million in annual contributions, Birthright sends 50,000 young Jews to Israel for a transformational experience. Since its inception, Birthright has sent 500,000 people from 67 countries, including 1,000 universities. Birthright is achieving a high level of impact through its programs. Birthright grew because of a massive influx of cash, famously – at first – outside the normal Jewish philanthropic system (the first-year budget of $25 million sent 9,462 people on the trip). Yes, its founders had vision and drive; but they also had an appetite for significant expenditures.

More recently, PJ Library has experienced tremendous growth, and corresponding impact. This program started as a modest experiment, with 200 books mailed in Western Mass in 2005. Since then, PJ has distributed more than 20 million books to families worldwide. Of the 126,000 PJ families in North America, 96% say PJ supported their family in having conversations about Jewish traditions and values, and 83% are interested in getting more connected to local Jewish organizations (according to a June 2017 independent survey). In the past five years, PJ’s budget has more than doubled, from $11 million in FY14 to $26 million in FY18. This has come not only from the Grinspoon Foundation (which supports more than 40% of the PJ Library program budget – totaling more than $35 million since its launch in 2005) but also from major funders known as the Alliance, contributing close to $6 million annually, as well as local community support (more than $5 million annually). This infusion of investment has allowed PJ headcount to triple from 17 in FY10 to 52 this past year. PJ’s impact and scale has grown in concert with its additional investment.

The third example of growth in investment is OneTable, an organization devoted to helping young Jews share Shabbat dinners. Founded only three years ago, OneTable is now planning 8,000 dinners for more than 55,000 people in dozens of cities. Their budget has grown fivefold from $870,000 in their launch year to $4.5 million in the current year. While the impact remains to be seen fully (although impact study soon to be released, and initial data released last year is impressive), the supporters have determined this is a project worth investing in.

Other examples exist (Moishe House, American Jewish World Service), but overall these are the exception, not the rule, in the landscape of Jewish non-profits.

At a plenary conference at the Jewish Funders Network conference in 2017, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer asked panelists: if they could ask one request from the room of philanthropists, what would it be? I didn’t hesitate: Make some big bets. I don’t care what you bet on (although I have some thoughts and preferences). But we know that the end game of the Jewish philanthropic community should not be: end up with money in the bank. The end game must be to foster a world of deep Jewish living and meaning. In order to bring that world about, we need creative risk-takers. And we need many, many more dollars than we are spending.

What would it look like if the Jewish community didn’t view the IRS’s 5% spending rule as a maximum, but as a minimum? The world is changing extremely fast. Are we spending enough today in order to achieve the world we want to live in tomorrow? The people are starving, but we seem to be saving up money for a building in the distant future. At this rate, we will neither save the people, nor build the building. And we can’t afford to make that mistake.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is CEO of Mechon Hadar and author of
Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities.