The Future of Jewish Philanthropy: a Response to Johanna Arbib Perugia

This morning, I had occasion to see an op-ed piece which had been published in by Johanna Arbib Perugia on “Looking Back to the Future of Jewish Philanthropy.” In the bio, it mentions that Ms. Perugia was scheduled to address this question on a panel at last week’s “President’s Conference on the Future” in Jerusalem.

I had occasion to speak on a very similar panel at the last such conference. At that time, Ms. Purugia’s position was the one held by the majority of the panelists. They, as does she, bemoaned that a great deal, indeed too much, philanthropy given by Jews is going to non-Jewish or non-Israel causes, and they, as does she, took particular note of the giving patterns of young people.

With great respect and admiration for the important leadership which Ms. Perugia models, I take issue with several of the assumptions in her piece just as I did with many of the distinguished speakers at the 2009 Conference.

1. Ms. Perugia accurately points out that it is legitimate to support needs beyond one’s own immediate area. In fact, the Jewish Tradition mandates such and devotes a great deal of effort struggling with how to balance competing claims. There is no disagreement on the concept, only on the proportions and how to set them. I will return to this below.

2. In fairness to Ms. Perugia, she does not say, as too many other Jewish leaders have said, that too much “Jewish money is going to non Jewish causes.” But since one hears it often, permit this observation. There is a fallacy that money made by someone who is Jewish is Jewish money. Beyond taxes, no individual has an obligation to give personal money to any specific voluntary cause. One might hope that one feels a sense of sufficient connection with one’s people or religion to support them in some way, but there is no inherent obligation to do so if one does not start out with the acceptance of Jewish Law as binding.

3. More to the point, even if one does feel a personal sense of connection, commitment, or conviction, there is nothing that mandates that particular organizations or institutions are the proper recipients of that largesse. Many established organizations have judged the measure of ones commitment by their support of certain well-established organizations. Ms. Perugia alluded to this in her comments about young funders who, even when they are very generous and philanthropic to Jewish causes, choose to give to other recipients – for a whole host of reasons. Among their reasons is the sense, right or wrong, that there is more agility and accountability among smaller and limited purpose recipients than among the large well-established umbrella groups. If one believes, as I do, that we are living in a time of great transformation, or, to repeat a phrase I coined about 9 years ago, those of us above a certain age are “guests in this century.” Then the reinvention of the communal structures is in fact a healthy sign, not a sign of loss and diminution.

4. There are several other key points important for the Jewish philanthropic world to consider:

  • There are many, both inside and outside of Israel, who believe that Israel now has a world-class economy and should not act as if its social services should depend on diaspora generosity. It is perfectly valid and praiseworthy if a funder wishes to support an Israel based organization, but it is not a sign of an erosion of Jewish commitment if diaspora funders say that it is time for domestic Israeli funders to pick up the slack. Fortunately, this is beginning to happen but many of our support organizations raise funds as if it isn’t.
  • It is also important to recall that in many Western societies, many of the areas once supported by private philanthropy are now considered societal responsibilities. Thus, for but one example, many would argue that we can eradicate huger more efficiently and quickly by advocating for more extensive support for government programs [such as what used to be called “food stamps” in the USA] than in working hard to raise funds for free standing soup kitchens and pantries. Regrettably, there is still a need for the latter, but one might ask if that is the most appropriate long-term use of Jewish communal funds. Beginning with the famous 1969 General Assembly protest, the community began to shift from supporting health care to education, recognizing that the underlying realities had shifted. One might question whether it isn’t time, once again, to discuss what we believe should be a long-term societal commitment to all, and what should be a unique Jewish concern.
  • Another conceptual dilemma is the very vision of what it means to be a Jewish person in an open society. Once upon a time, barely 2 generations ago, there was a glass ceiling for Jewish philanthropists in leadership roles in the general society and mainstream orchestras, museums, etc. Most, I suspect, applaud that that ceiling has largely been shattered. If one were to ask most diaspora Jews, would you rather have a society which has no barriers to participation but allows you to be as Jewish as you wish, or to have a society in which Jews give a larger share of philanthropy to Jewish causes because they are barred from full and open participation elsewhere, I daresay that most would choose the former.

5. Finally, it is important, to recognize that the onus for making a compelling case for voluntary time and money is not on the funder. If Jewish organizations, no matter how worthy, are not perceived as compelling, responsive, visionary, and effective, the blame should not fall on those who happen to make other choices. It may very well be that funders who are choosing to fund other causes or organizations are making very thoughtful and strategic funding decisions worth paying attention to.

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning and blogs at Wise Philanthropy.