Jewish charities, already having a hard time because of intermarriage, assimilation and growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, face what could be their biggest challenge yet: finding a way to appeal to legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, but whose Jewish identities are generally weaker than that of their parents.
If Jewish federations and agencies fail to forge a close relationship with this highly independent generation of Jews, Jewish charities, experts say, might struggle greatly in years to come. That could mean less money to combat Jewish poverty, bury indigent Jews or provide food and shelter for the elderly and infirm at Jewish nursing homes.
To prevent that nightmare scenario from materializing, federations and Jewish institutions around the country have taken aggressive steps to reach the elusive under-45 set. Whether those efforts can succeed remains to be seen.
Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) earlier this year inaugurated a program that brought together Los Angeles teenagers and schooled them in principles of Jewish philanthropy.
Over two months, eight girls and six boys -- all nominated by affluent JCF donors, including family members -- learned about the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and g'milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). They gained exposure to several local Jewish and non-Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Puente Learning Center in East Los Angeles, which offers computer and literacy programs for the Latino community.
The young students, after making on-site visits and presenting their findings to one another, then voted on how to divvy up the $10,000 the foundation had given them to donate to their favorite causes. So how did the young Jewish philanthropists-in-training decide to spend the money?
Two non-Jewish organizations, the Los Angeles Free Clinic and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), topped their list. At the behest of JCF executives, group members later added Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, a Jewish organization.
"I thought it was a little ironic that we were doing this for the Jewish Community Foundation and we picked two non-Jewish organizations," said Scott Cutrow, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Crossroads who participated in and said he benefited from the JCF youth program. "I don't think that was the ultimate goal of the people who set it up."
Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.
Unlike past generations, young Jews consider themselves "much more American than Jewish," said Gerald Bubis, a former board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and founding director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Whereas Jews 50 years ago gave largely to Jewish organizations, especially federations, younger Jews are now just as likely to give to such universal causes as the environment, universities or the arts, he said.
Jewish affairs expert Gary Tobin said he found that development unsurprising. The president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco said that only about one-quarter of American Jews belong to synagogues, with lower participation rates among the young.
The MTV Generation largely stays away from temples and other Jewish institutions, Tobin said, because many of those organizations lack warmth, a sense of community and a welcoming spirit. As a result, young Jews are failing to build the communal bonds that could one day lead them to contribute their inherited or earned wealth to Jewish causes.
"A lot of Jewish institutional life is not very interesting," Tobin said. "If it's a turnoff for a 70-year-old and for a 50-year-old, it sure as hell isn't going to turn on a 25-year-old."
Another turnoff is the heavy-handed approach Jewish institutions sometimes take toward young and other donors, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network in New York. Some federations and other Jewish organizations, he said, have an arrogant, expectant attitude and treat donors like money machines who deserve little gratitude or explanation about how their gifts will be spent.
That approach might have worked in the past but not with young donors, who demand a more personalized approach to giving, Charendoff said. Simply put: They want direct control over how their dollars are spent and are willing to bypass federations altogether to ensure that happens.
To that end, an enormous network of family foundations have sprung up over the past seven years, from about 2,500 to 8,000 today, he said. Those foundations fund a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to the environment, and have siphoned money away from federations and other traditional Jewish charities, Charendoff said.
The United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation's federations, has seen donations stagnate in recent years. In 2003, volunteers raised $827.5 million, about $500,000 less than in 2000.
Partly to reverse that trend, federations around the country have made building bridges to young Jews a major priority.
"We have an absolute obligation to reach down to that younger generation to make sure they're not only involved but engaged and excited in ways that will encourage them to lead the community," said Gail Hyman, UJC senior vice president of communications.
In that vein, about 40 federations have created "Blue Knot" affinity groups over the past couple years that cater to mostly young, high-tech workers, she said. The Las Vegas Federation recently held a Vodka Latka Chanukah celebration that attracted 200 hip revelers.
(Interestingly, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the sponsor of the original Vodka Latka, has stopped holding the party, even though the most recent one in 2002 attracted about 1,000 young Jews. Craig Prizant, the Los Angeles Federation's executive vice president of resource development, said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time and was too big to expose revelers to The Federation's important work.)
The Los Angeles Federation, which eliminated its money-losing young leadership initiative a couple years ago, has replaced it with a Young Leadership Division that combines Jewish education and fun. At monthly meetings, young Jews attend movie screenings, meet for java at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or gather for Shabbat dinners, where, in addition to socializing, they learn about The Federation and Jewish values, Prizant said. He estimated that the revamped leadership program has added an extra $750,000 to The Federation's coffers.
In recent years, the organization also helped create the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund (LA-JVPF), a self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals that has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews. Several LA-JVPF participants have become first-time Federation donors.
Other local Jewish agencies have begun emphasizing the need to recruit young Jews.
In October, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) created a 14-member young professionals advisory group to raise awareness about the organization's mission and to develop the next generation of leaders and donors, said Danielle Walsmith, JFLA's director of communications. At present, most JFLA donors are 55 or older, she added.
The Zimmer Children's Museum has recently reconfigured its board to include more young members, executive director Esther Netter said, adding that she thought Jewish institutions should make an effort to educate very young Jews about the importance of giving to Jewish causes.
That appears to be happening, said Ann Cohen, a business consultant who has worked with UJC and other Jewish organizations. The rise in attendance at Jewish day schools over the past decade should inculcate those youngsters with Jewish values and an understanding of tzedakah (charitable giving), she said. That could translate into more money flowing to Jewish institutions in the future.
JCF's Marvin Schotland said he remains optimistic about his and other Jewish organizations abilities to eventually win over younger Jews (see page 13). Even though the group of students participating in the Foundation's pilot program favored non-Jewish charities over Jewish ones, Schotland said time is on JCF's side.
"We're building a relationship with them," he said. "Fifteen or 20 years from now, some of them are going to be back here, and we'll have credibility with them. We'll also have some idea what [causes] they're interested in and be able to bring them something in the Jewish community consistent with their interests."
"We have a very long view," Schotland added.
Q & A With Marvin Schotland
by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer
The Jewish Community Foundation turns 50 this year. Under the direction of Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive officer, the charitable gift-planning and grant-making organization has grown into the 10th-largest Los Angeles foundation, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. During Schotland's 15-year tenure, the foundation's assets under management have mushroomed to nearly $500 million from $90 million.
Since 1989, the foundation and its donors have allocated more than $420 million to a host of local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Centers, Zimmer Children's Museum and the Koreh L.A. literacy program.
Jewish Journal: How did you boost the foundation's assets by so much?
Marvin Schotland: I think growth is a result of greater awareness of the role the foundation plays in the community. Uniformly, the foundation is seen as outstanding professionally, and that has given our donors an increased confidence level in us.
Second, there's been a diversification of membership on the board of trustees. Its more representative of the Jewish community, both in terms of its male/female makeup and the religious, political and age groups. Our board members help disparate parts of the community better understand our charitable gift-planning role and our grant-making process.
JJ: With so many Jewish family foundations sprouting up, why should a philanthropist give to the foundation instead of creating his or her own?
MS: If you have $500 million, is it in your best interest to establish a fund with us? Probably not. You can hire your own staff to help you make decisions. But if you have $100,000 to $50 million, I think we can help you out. We know the community intimately and have the broad and deep professional expertise to strategically and effectively guide philanthropists in planning their charitable giving.
JJ: What percentage of your assets do you distribute annually? Some in the community have complained that the foundation could be more generous.
MS: The foundation has adopted a 5 percent spending rate for its permanent endowment funds that support the community. That allows us to continue growing our permanent funds without risking the capital that's been entrusted to us by the community. If we had a much higher payout rate, we'd have to invest our money in much riskier securities, which we don't want to do. That's a conservative philosophy, but we're an organization that takes a long view, which I think is prudent.
JJ: Why hasn't the foundation given more to the Jewish Community Centers (JCC)? Given your assets, the foundation could easily afford to save the foundering centers.
MS: We have given to JCCs over the years in many different ways. When they were viable and healthy, we funded all sorts of programs [including] an early childhood education and family center in the early '90s in the [now shuttered] Conejo Valley. We've always been a funder of programmatic initiatives of the JCC and, in certain cases, capital initiatives, like the $2 million we gave to the [Bernard] Milken Jewish Community Campus, which houses the New JCC at Milken.
But when the centers began imploding, we didn't have enough resources to bail them out. The reality of it was that, as we understood the situation from all the information we had, the issues were not only economic issues but issues of management and broad-based community support. We very quietly talked to donors who had funds with us, and they weren't interested, because they didn't think the JCC problems were purely economic. Our dollars will be better served being spent on new programmatic initiatives and on those centers that survive, once the dust settles.
JJ: What are you most proud of during your tenure?
MS: I think we've been a wonderful agent for seeding new and emerging projects in the community.
For instance, our early support of Beit T'Shuvah, an agency that helps Jewish individuals with addictions, helped it get off the ground in 1987. Today, it has grown into a successful, independent agency that serves more than 2,500 people a year
The Zimmer Children's Museum was established in 1992, thanks to seed funding from the foundation. We were also a seeding agent for Koreh L.A., which got its start in 1999 from a modest grant from us and has gone on to be a very, successful literacy program.
We provided substantial seed money to create the College Campus Initiative, a multiyear initiative begun in 2000 to engage local college students more actively in Jewish life. I'm also proud about the establishment of our Family Foundation Center in 2001, which helps donors and funders engage in their philanthropy in a more effective way.
JJ: How much longer do you plan to remain on the job?
MS: I'm hoping to be here until I retire. I'm 58 and not interested in retiring any time soon. I love what I do.
For more information about the Jewish Community Foundation, call (323) 761-8700 or visit www.jewishfoundationla.org.