Suspending the Western Wall Compromise and the Bill on Non-Orthodox Conversion: Implications for the Philanthropy of North American Jewry Toward Israel

The message to the next generation of North American Jewish donors, volunteers, and leaders is that Israel accepts their money and time, but does not accept them.

Birthright Mega 2010; eJP archives photo.

By Dr. Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim and Prof. Hillel Schmid

The recent decision of the Israeli government to suspend the Western Wall compromise and keep the monopoly by the Chief Rabbinate is a source of shock for large segments of North American Jewry. This decision has implications for the levels of tolerance and acceptance of Jewish-religious diversity in Israel as well as for the philanthropic support of the Jewish community in thousands of nonprofit organizations that provide social and other services in Israel.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that total donations from international sources to Israel amount to $2.64 billion a year, which constitutes 60% of the total philanthropic funds in Israel. Out of these, the declared tax-deductible donations of North American Jewry to Israel were estimated to be approximately $2.16 billion in 2010, originating primarily from Jews affiliated with the Reform, Conservative, and Modern-Orthodox denominations. The lion’s share of the donations are direct contributions to nonprofits operating in Israel, and the rest, estimated at about 10% or $210 million, are channeled through central fundraising mechanisms such as the Jewish Federations of North America. These giving patterns have changed significantly in recent decades. In particular, there has been a shift toward the growth in direct philanthropic support to organizations in Israel; the expansion of areas of giving related to social and welfare services to new fields such as gender equality, religious pluralism and diversity, empowerment of disadvantaged populations; and a new focus on democracy and civil rights efforts.

The government decision has the potential to impact the contributions patterns of American Jewry to Israel in three ways:

First, the impact on Jewish federation giving to Israel is not expected to be significant. The federations represent complex, multifaceted, and community-based philanthropic institutions rooted in the notion of a central mechanism that coordinates communal activity and makes decisions for the donors. Organizations such as federations aspire to act in a consensus manner, and their decision-making does not revolve around the policy of the Israeli government, but is anchored instead around the tension between the needs of Israeli society and the needs of the local communities (Jewish and non-Jewish) in which they operate. These constraints will likely prevent any unexpected changes in patterns of giving to Israel.

Second, more significant fallout is expected among those directly affected by the government’s decision: Reform and Conservative Jews. These groups are feeling their expression of Judaism is not being recognized and validated. It is important to remember that only those who are well informed of Israeli and Jewish American politics will view the government decision as a decision of exclusion. These groups are unlikely to alter the scope of their donations but instead shift their areas of contributions to Israel to support advocacy organizations working to separate religion from state in Israel, weaken the Chief Rabbinate, combat government corruption, and support the social change organizations associated with the left wing parties. The past shows that the rise of the “Who is a Jew?” debate shifts the goals and targets of contributions to spheres of social change and social justice.

Third, Jews who do not contribute to Israel and especially younger Jews are affected by the government’s decision. These groups are potential future donors and volunteers for social causes for the State of Israel. The government decision has a negative impact on the potential contributions, volunteerism, and emotional connection of young Jews with the State of Israel and Israeli society. The government’s decision was made at a time when prominent Jewish philanthropists, alongside the Israeli government, are working to create an emotional and spiritual connection between young Jews and Israel by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in programs such as Birthright Israel and the Maccabiah. Young people who participate in these programs come from all Jewish denominations, and many are from interfaith families. The government’s decision undermines the multi-year investment of resources, time and cross-border work aimed at connecting the two largest centers of world Jewry – Israel and North America. The message to the next generation of North American Jewish donors, volunteers, and leaders is that Israel accepts their money and time, but does not accept them.

Dr. Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University. Her doctoral dissertation was written on the changing philanthropy of the UJA-Federation of New York. Her research work is devoted to the study of contemporary Jewish philanthropy, Israeli philanthropy, and ethnic and community aspects of organized philanthropy.

Prof. Hillel Schmid is Professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the founder and first director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy in Israel, Hebrew University.