There’s something else you can do with those dollars

In the wake of Hamas’ barbaric attack on Oct. 7, Jewish megadonors — some of whom have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of already well-funded universities — have expressed their frustrations about what they perceive as morally indefensible statements by student organizations and university staff in support of the massacre. Influential donors to Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have said that they will effectively close their philanthropic wallets to those institutions. 

For those principled donors who have had it with adding to endowments the size of medium-size countries, there is an alternative for your tzedakah where the impact of those dollars would be truly
transformative. It would change lives, it would change institutions — it would change a people.

At nearly every conference I’ve ever attended, when the formal sessions and workshops are done and colleagues gather for after-hours, now-let’s-really-share conversations, heads of school will often recount — wistfully, not angrily or cynically — a successful solicitation of a “megadonor” for their school. They came away with a commitment for $18,000, or $36,000, or even a six-figure gift, all very serious numbers for any of our schools. Knowing the donor and the field, however, they would also share the denouement of the story: that the same donor was recently honored for a $10 million gift to his alma mater. At that point, most of us indulge in a fantasy of what our schools could do with that kind of money (some of us out loud, some to ourselves). 

With due respect for all that your generosity has accomplished in these famous (and famously wealthy) institutions of higher learning, imagine what could be done with those funds at your local Jewish day school. These schools are too often a “best-kept secret,” providing an exceptional dual-curriculum education and attending to the social-emotional needs of their students, all while nurturing a positive, dynamic Jewish identity. Despite operating with one hand tied behind their backs, financially speaking, these schools are defiantly ambitious. They transform the lives of their students, but they don’t stop there. Those children go on to influence their families, and their families impact the communities in which they live. Student by student, Jewish day schools change the future — our future.  

Nearly half of America’s most generous philanthropists in 2022 were Jewish, according to Forbes. The 12 Jewish billionaires with membership in this exclusive club constitute a huge overrepresentation of the American Jewish population. There is no question that we are a giving people. And yet, with very few exceptions, none of this prestigious group gave significant percentages of their charitable dollars to Jewish causes. To be sure, hundreds of millions went to undeniably important and life-changing organizations. Neither I nor my friends and colleagues would ever speak against such gifts (I’m on pretty safe ground speaking on their behalf, even if I didn’t check with them first). But while institutions with endowments in the tens of billions receive a barely-move-the-needle gift of eight figures, our schools typically receive a tiny fraction of that, if anything at all. 

It’s not that we are not appreciative of a gift of any size — we are, and so are the trustees on our boards, our faculty and the parents of our students. The frustration is in knowing how much more we could do with a fully staffed learning enhancement team, or with a tuition assistance budget that would mean never turning away a child who wanted but couldn’t afford a Jewish education. A significant endowment, responsibly managed, would mean not sweating payroll. It would allow for state-of-the-art science labs and dramatic arts and music and field trips in addition to meaningful Tanach classes and Hebrew immersion and Jewish philosophy. It would mean trips to Israel accessible to all of our students. It would mean paying serious wages for talented staff and faculty, who wouldn’t have to jettison their commitment to the Jewish people in exchange for being able to purchase a first home or afford having a second child.

I am not maligning the motivation behind donors’ mega-gifts to universities (and hospitals and museums). I firmly believe that it is out of a conviction to do right, to do good, to positively influence society. These institutions can play pivotal roles in people’s lives, and a gift is a genuine way of repaying a debt of gratitude.

For those who were and continue to be incensed at the absence of moral clarity at today’s universities, closing your checkbooks to them makes perfect sense, but there is more that you can do. 

To have a profound impact on the Jewish community writ large, open those checkbooks up again.

Jerry Isaak-Shapiro is the head of school at Irvine Hebrew Day School in Santa Ana, Calif.