The History of Jewish Philanthropy

by Michael S. Glickman
Center for Jewish History

In mid-October, the Center for Jewish History hosted an international symposium, “History of Jewish Giving: Jews and Charity.” This event brought together scholars, philanthropists and professionals to delve into the history of Jewish philanthropy, and to discuss the evolution of charitable giving. As scholars work to understand the religious, financial, social and personal aspects of what it has meant to give and to receive, Jewish philanthropists and fundraising professionals can use this understanding to form the landscapes of Jewish institutions. The symposium highlighted the possibilities of working collaboratively to map a system that will answer the defined social needs of contemporary Jewish communities.

Symposium organizers Debra Kaplan (Yeshiva University) and Judah Galinsky (Bar-Ilan University) explained that this emerging field of research presents an exciting opportunity for interdisciplinary work, and intersections between Jewish studies and economics, anthropology, national and international histories, gender studies and more. Speakers demonstrated the wide range of approaches to the topic. Historians examined philanthropic processes as they emerged from quantitative records dating from medieval times up through the centuries. Scholars of religion, law and culture traced shifts in longstanding models of Jewish communal giving. Symposium participants debated the evolution of giving practices to fulfill religious obligations, represent values of tikkun olam and address social expectations.

Following the symposium, the Center for Jewish History in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network presented a philanthropists’ roundtable. During this event, philanthropists and foundation leaders discussed the priorities of the Jewish world, which included relief for those living in poverty, education, social justice causes, support for Israel, funding for arts and cultural initiatives, and more. In her introduction to the discussion, Amy Goldman Fowler (Vice Chair of the Center’s Board) noted the importance of “exploring future possibilities in charitable giving trends.” Questions included the roles that technology and social media could come to play in the nonprofit sector, how a global marketplace and volatile economy could impact Jewish philanthropy, and how philanthropists and organizations can work alongside government agencies.

Charitable giving represents a universal moral virtue, but giving back to society in gratitude for opportunities received is quintessentially American. The nonprofit sector presents unique opportunities to volunteer, advocate for policy, promote democratic values and participate in decision-making processes to shape a more just and prosperous democracy. In addition, the figure of the strategic, results-driven individual philanthropist has emerged. One might compare The Giving Pledge to Andrew Carnegie’s call to his peers to give generously and in their own lifetime. A fair number of Jewish philanthropists have now taken The Giving Pledge, and this represents only one example of the ways in which individual philanthropists are changing the face of Jewish philanthropy.

The insights gained during the symposium and roundtable discussion will be part of an upcoming exhibition on the history of Jewish philanthropy that will travel through the United States. The exhibit, through the use of technology and a comparative review of historical documentation, will invite members of the public to broaden their understanding of Jewish philanthropy and to develop a sense of its future.