Philanthropy – the Bridge to Future Peoplehood

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

By Shlomi Ravid

The foundations of modern Jewish philanthropy, were developed in Eastern Europe against the background of the 16th-18th centuries. The historian Simon Dubnow, writes: “The Jewish community constituted not only a national and cultural, but also a civil, entity. It formed a Jewish city within a Christian city, with its separate forms of life, its own religious, administrative, judicial, and charitable institutions” (Dubnow, 1914). In many respects in those foundational years core Jewish values and surrounding communities’ approach to Jews converged to develop the unique nature and role of modern Jewish Philanthropy, and provided the base for its 20th century developments.

The 20th century will go down in Jewish history as the century of philanthropy. Not only because of its achievements in rebuilding the Jewish communities throughout the world after the Holocaust, but also for expanding the notion of collective responsibility beyond the local to the global Jewish community. The 20th century saw the realization of Jewish collective aspirations and Jewish philanthropy rose to the challenge of building modern regional (Federations), national (UJA) and global (JAFI, Keren Hayesod, JDC, etc.) frameworks. Those frameworks, structured as collective endeavors, attempted to integrate Peoplehood on both local and global levels, simultaneously investing in local communities and the global agenda, which focused primarily on the building and support of the State of Israel for most of the second half of the 20th century.

Towards the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the Jewish philanthropy landscape has changed. We have witnessed a rise in individual philanthropy and a decline in collective giving, accompanied by a diversification of the giving. Part of it can be explained through broader changes in the philanthropic world, and yet it also begs the question of the role of current and future Jewish philanthropy vis a vis the collective Jewish enterprise and civilization. In other words, if in the 20th century Jewish philanthropy reflected mostly Jewish collectivity, what will be its role in the increasingly individualistic/localized 21st century?

Before we turn to address this question, it is important to say a few things about the relationship between Peoplehood and philanthropy, and frame some of the concepts. We use the concept of Jewish Peoplehood here as a form of shared consciousness that constitutes Jewish collective enterprise. In other words, it is a worldview that provides a shared rationale, meaning and core values of Judaism that animate collective enterprise – of what Jews do as a group. In that context philanthropy plays a dual role: it is an expression of Peoplehood as well as its engine. On one hand, almost by design, being engaged in Jewish philanthropy is an expression of Jewish Peoplehood. On the other, philanthropy drives the nature of Jewish collective enterprise as it defines and reinterprets its current meaning and that of Peoplehood.

The Jewish world is moving into a new paradigm of Peoplehood. The guiding paradigm of the second half of the 20th century, focusing collectively on building local communities and the Jewish State, has been weakened. There are serious debates on the what of peoplehood: i.e. a covenant of fate vs. a covenant of destiny. Not less important are the disagreement on the how: On collective action and legacy organizations vs. individual philanthropy and alternative modes of engagement and affiliation. Jews are not just asking how to improve the system but are questioning its rationale and purpose. The time has come to develop a new and engaging paradigm of Jewish collectivity that will provide meaning and purpose for both local and global Jewish enterprise.

When we published the first issue on Peoplehood and Philanthropy, a decade ago, the conversation was at its infancy and the core challenge was to raise awareness to Peoplehood and engage young people in the conversation. It seemed that if we just did the same things in better ways we may win the day. And yet so much has transpired in this landscape over the last decade. Challenges to legacy organizations have increased significantly. Jewish individualism, is stronger than ever. Relying on Israel to pull us together has become difficult. In short, what is required are not specific improvements but rather a paradigm change. How can Jewish philanthropy lead the charge?

Last month, Ha’aretz columnist Yair Assulin (past contributor to the Peoplehood Papers) published a column titled: “This is How Revolutions Happen.” He writes: “Philanthropic money or impact investments that seek to influence the Israeli conversation and Israeli behavior… need to be invested before anything else in the building of new Israeli narratives, in value clarification, in the creation of stories and ideas, in the analysis of reality, in Israeli consciousness.” The key to change according to Assulin is “to analyze honestly and truthfully the present and interpret courageously the future, and not to be afraid of complexities and to dare challenging the present and us. This is the only way to bring about a revolution… only in this way society protects itself and grows.”

The Jewish people is going through a complex period. Questions of meaning and purpose arise – Why be Jewish? Why be a member of the Jewish community? What does being a member of the Jewish people means to me? – and they hover over our collective enterprise. Jewish philanthropy, as the engine of Jewish Peoplehood, needs to step up and address the challenge of our times. To mobilize the creative forces hidden in our people, in all of their diversity and local concerns, to envision the next phase of Judaism as a collective civic and communal enterprise.

There is no doubt that we are heading towards a new Jewish collective paradigm. It will require adjustment to a new set of communal expectations at the local level and different notions of collectivity and connectivity on the global. If we are successful it would spell in practical terms an ensemble of changed legacy organizations and a whole set of new ones. The key to the process – of envisioning, facilitating, planning, innovating and implementing – is in the hands of Jewish philanthropy. This is a huge historical challenge. Indeed, the calling of our times – no less.

The good news is that Jewish philanthropy has been engaged in it for some time already. It just needs to realize the nature and magnitude of this undertaking, and understand that in the broader scheme of things, this can only be achieved through collaboration. That if individual philanthropy was the anti-thesis to collective philanthropy, our current challenges require a synthesis between the two. One based on dialogue, openness and cross pollination. We will be able to write the next page of Jewish civilization only if we go at it together.

Shlomi Ravid is the executive director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and the founding editor and publisher of the Peoplehood Papers.

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