The Giving Pledge

by Rob Eshman

Last week, 40 of the world’s richest families and individuals signed the Giving Pledge, each promising to give away at least half of their fortune to philanthropy before they die. A large number of the signatories are Jewish. This column is for them.

I won’t presume to tell any of these people where to give their money – they made it, I didn’t. But what I can point out is the enormous impact their financial support could make on the future of the Jewish People.

The Jewish names on the Giving Pledge list represent many billions of dollars: Michael R. Bloomberg, Eli and Edythe Broad, Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg, Larry Ellison, Joan and Irwin Jacobs, George B. Kaiser, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, Lorry I. Lokey, Alfred E. Mann, Bernie and Billi Marcus, Bernard and Barbro Osher, Ronald O. Perelman, David M. Rubenstein, Herb and Marion Sandler, Jim and Marilyn Simons, Jeff Skoll, Sanford and Joan Weill, and Shelby White (widow of Leon Levey).

That’s 18 couples or individuals out of 40, which is in keeping with a Forward finding from 2007 that Jews are “disproportionately high givers among the super rich.” In 2005, Jews constituted about 24 percent of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans, while 35 percent of The Chronicle of Philathropy’s list of top donors were Jewish.

So the dollars are there.

But the reason it’s important to address these people is because, generally, very wealthy Jewish philanthropists give only a small percentage of their charitable dollars to Jewish causes. Several years ago, in a Jewish Journal cover story titled “Why Aren’t Jews Giving to Jews?” Tom Tugend reported on a study that found that between 1995 and 2000, of the $5.3 billion given by Jewish mega-donors, only $318 million, or a mere 6 percent, went to specifically Jewish causes, including support for Israeli universities. The $5.3 billion came from 188 gifts, of which 18 – 9.6 percent – went to Jewish organizations.

For the purposes of that study, mega-donors were defined as those who give $10 million or above in one year.

By the metrics of the Giving Pledge, $10 million is latte money. But to Jewish causes, such gifts can be huge. And what qualifies to these donors as major gifts – of $50 million, $100 million, $1 billion – intelligently applied, would have an enduring and positive effect on the Jewish future.

So there are two questions: What are the needs? And why should these people meet them?

Let me start with the why first. I can get all sappy here and invoke the zeyde who came over in steerage and worked 18 hours behind a candy store counter to send dad to medical school. I can get grim and guilt-inducing and bring up a little something called the Holocaust, which, by the roll of the Cosmic Die, passed over a lucky few. I can turn to the texts, which exhort Jews to honor their traditions of charity, education, good works. I can wax genetic and insist that it is no coincidence that Jews are disproportionately on that Giving Pledge list, as they are on the list of Nobel Prize winners, college presidents and comedy writers. There is, it seems, a value-added proposition to the world at large in nurturing this small, nudgy people.

Those are all good reasons, but let me offer one a wealthy investor might appreciate more: leverage. The infrastructure of Jewish philanthropy is well developed, as are our schools, camps, social service institutions (which reach far beyond the Jewish population), even the Jewish state. An influx of bold, visionary capital would help our nonprofit organizations go from good to great. Thoughtful charitable investment in our best camps, schools, JCCs, social services, senior centers, hospitals and cultural endeavors would help improve what already exists, make what already works available to those who aren’t aware of it or can’t afford it, and sustain it into future generations.

Speaking of leverage, major contributions from those in the stratosphere of the Giving Pledge could inspire – leverage – mega-gifts from a community that already gives but can give even more. There is a lot of Jewish philanthropic money wadded up in private hands and foundations looking for clear leadership and a bold vision. Be that.

As for what the needs are, let me offer – even though I said I wouldn’t presume to – some no-brainers. The first is to ensure that there is no Holocaust survivor in need anywhere on the planet. The world abandoned them once; there is no excuse for repeating that sin.

As for the future, the three proven ways to nurture positive Jewish identity in future generations are camps, schools and Birthright Israel programs. Make these affordable and available to all Jewish children worldwide, and it’s game on. Do that, and you will have done as much to ensure Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish values as the creation of the modern State of Israel.

We are living at a time of unprecedented prosperity – and income disparity. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, the driving forces behind the Giving Pledge, understand that philanthropy benefits those in need, those who give and the world at large. I don’t begrudge a single dollar the Jews on the Giving Pledge donate to the arts, to education, to the environment, to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease.

But it is time to ask that some of that money, a couple of those billions, go to enrich and improve a community that in turn seeks to enrich and improve the world.

Rob Eshman is Editor in Chief of (Los Angles) Jewish Journal.