“Remember CHAI”: Thoughts About Jewish Philanthropy

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

By David Altshuler

During the past eighteen months, I have begun working to build a new philanthropic vehicle to create significant partnerships around great issues in Jewish life. In wide-ranging discussions with activists and funders, the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy (a pillar of the United Jewish Communities) has tried to take the pulse of current trends in Jewish philanthropy especially but not exclusively in North America. What follows here is a brief summary that owes its brevity and simplicity to a hope that it will be digested, remembered, and – most important – tested in the marketplace.

Not Obligation But Choice

By now it is an aphorism that all Jews are “Jews by choice.” If that is true, all the more so is it a fact that participation in philanthropy is voluntary. Yes, there was a time when organizations and leaders exerted discipline over communities and individuals. Vestiges of such normative behavior persist, but they are waning. So Jewish life in general and fundraising in particular do best when they welcome and encourage rather than try to command and coerce.

Not Fear But Hope

It became clear to me that the earth had moved when, as a college professor, I started signing registration cards of freshmen who were born after 1967. The Great Depression, the Shoah, and the establishment of Israel left indelible impressions on my parents; the Six-Day War and the 1960s are realities that shaped me. Soon, however, younger people – for whom freedom, affluence, and globalism are the bedrock realities of their personal and communal outlook – will determine the contours of Jewish life, including philanthropy.

Not Scarcity But Abundance

The “system” of federations in North America currently raises nearly $2 billion a year. Jewish family and community foundations currently hold approximately $20 billion in assets. In the next 20 years, the United States will see an inter-generation transfer of wealth of $12-18 billion, and perhaps $2-3 billion of that sum will find its way into philanthropic work.

Not Gifts But Investments

My friend and mentor, Jeffrey Solomon, President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, likes to say that people give money ”to look good, to feel good, and to do good.” I would argue that since the word “philanthropy” means “the love of humankind,” true philanthropy occurs only when you spend money to do good. Increasingly today, not-for-profit work involves tools that any serious business requires, such as strategic planning, risk management, performance measures, and dispassionate evaluation. The appeal of philanthropy, then, will be different from what it often was in previous generations – a benign avocation to balance out the donor’s profit-seeking hard work in the ”real world.” Philanthropy should be a weighty, consequential investment.

What does that spell?

  • Choice
  • Hope
  • Abundance
  • Investment

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, ”Without flour [= cash], there is no Torah [so good teachers deserve fair pay]. But with no Torah [= serious thinking], there is no flour [= investment].” (Avot 3:17) Jewish philanthropy is serious work; it is also holy work.

David Altshuler is President of the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy. He was Founding Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City from 1986 to 2999, prior to which he held the Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.