What Makes a Jewish Non-Profit Jewish?

One of the questions continually asked is “What is Jewish about a Jewish non-profit organization? It has been discussed for decades and a search of the literature will reveal a dialogue among the professionals, and others, in the field of Jewish communal service. There are tens of articles in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service that focus on family service agencies, Jewish community centers, Jewish homes for the aged, and other educational, health and social service organizations in the Jewish community. The discussion has continued to attract the interest of volunteer leaders, professionals, and recipients of services in the community.

In reviewing the topic we begin with the question, does the source of the funding define the agency’s identity? If a non-profit is funded by the Jewish community is this sufficient to label it as a Jewish organization. There are a number of organizations in a variety of communities that have been funded over many years by the Jewish community, and even though the number of Jewish recipients has decreased the agency continues to be identified as Jewish. Of course it may be perceived as a Jewish organization by the general community and the Jewish community maybe questioning their continued involvement and support of the services if only a small number of recipients are Jewish.

Another issue has to do with the name of the organization, and there are many examples of hospitals that were founded to provide internships for Jewish doctors and kosher food for patients in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. Many of these medical institutions continue to keep “Jewish” in the name although there is no longer a need for training positions for Jewish doctors and kosher food is available in many hospitals. If the word “Jewish” remains in the name of the hospital does this define it as a Jewish hospital?

Of course we also have a question about the content of the services delivered in the non-profit organization. There is no question that the synagogue and the Jewish day school qualify as Jewish organizations. The synagogue focuses on the spiritual and religious needs of its members and the Jewish day school provides a Jewish education to its students.

However, when we consider other organizations that are supported by the Jewish community and serve members of the Jewish community can we assume that they are indeed Jewish organizations? Is there something more that needs to be done to identify these non-profits as Jewish organizations? What is uniquely Jewish about the organization and the services they provide to the community that inherently communicates a sense of their being Jewish organizations?

Perhaps it begins with the board of directors and the way the volunteer leadership has defined the vision and mission of the organization. What do they strive to achieve and what services are they providing that distinguish them from the same services offered to the general community through non-sectarian agencies? A very well know question is whether 10 Jewish men sitting in the steam bath of the Jewish community center meet the criteria for it being a Jewish organization?

Since the 1990 Jewish population study in the United States that indicated a rate of intermarriage of 52% there has been more of a focus on strengthening Jewish identity. Jewish organizations have undergone a process of self-examination to determine what role they have in either sponsoring or supporting programs that encourage involvement in the Jewish community. As a result there has been an evolution of creative approaches to attract people to programs that focus on their Jewishness. Being one of a number of Jewish people in a program is no longer sufficient and boards are now looking for other indicators of the Jewishness of the organization’s programs.

The steps organizations need to take are on a continuum, and the board is ultimately accountable for how the organization integrates their concerns into the policies and programs of the agency. The policies endorsed by the board reflect the values of the community as well as the organization’s leadership. For example, does the agency open its doors on Shabbat; does the organization serve kosher food at events; is there a recognition of Memorial Day and/or Independence Day in Israel.

Does the agency’s Jewishness play a role in the board’s decision-making process concerning its policies? If, not, what is the implication for its standing in the community? If yes, how does it impact on the discussions the board of directors has about these policy issues and how is it viewed by the greater Jewish community? The questioning of policies and the open discussion provides the opportunity for the board to define and clarify its interests and commitments. The message it sends through its policies resonates with the staff and clients, as well as with the community.

In future postings the definition of the Jewish non-profit organization Jewishness will be explored from a variety of perspectives. It is an issue that has implications for communal institutions in Israel as well as organizations in Jewish communities around the world.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.