October 22, 2008
Old traditions, new rules
Topic No. 1 on the Sukkot circuit this year was the economy. How bad will it get? Who's pulling their kids out of day school? Where are you putting your
money? What money? |
"I have a new word for my sukkah this year," a friend said as we walked into his simple bamboo-and-muslin hut: "Affordable housing."
There's no doubt about it: We are scared. Things have been bad before but not this bad. After seven fat years come the lean, just like our tradition says.
The problem is particularly acute in the world of Jewish nonprofits. In the fat years, they have built up a skein of projects, payrolls and programs that demand a constant flow of philanthropic dollars. Now comes the reckoning, when they will have to redefine and redirect the role of money in Jewish life.
For Jewish nonprofits -- schools, community centers, synagogues, social service and social action agencies -- what exactly does that mean?
For answers, I went to the top. I called Bob Aronson, who for 20 years has been CEO of the Detroit Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization that under Aronson has raised more money per capita than any group of its kind. Aronson just announced this week that he is stepping down as CEO in Detroit (he will remain a senior adviser). He will continue as president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and will consult with other philanthropies.
"Oy," he said to me when I congratulated him on the move. "My friends are saying, 'Now is not the time to be a philanthropic consultant -- no one's got any money.'"
Aronson, of course, doesn't really believe that.
"It's worse than it's ever been," he said, "but it too will pass."
In the meantime, according to Aronson, there are some rules we should all live by:
I asked Aronson if it wasn't true that there is still enough money in the Jewish community for all these needs -- the big buildings in memory of Mr. and Mrs. So and So, the edgy outreach to 20-somethings, the cross-cultural community bridge-building. Besides, each of these has a natural constituency that probably wouldn't be moved to give otherwise.
"That's simplistic," Aronson shot back. "There may be, but it's hard to raise money right now, and we need to focus on what's critical."
Where does Israel fit in on this list of priorities? Aronson is one of the prime movers behind Birthright Israel, which brings thousands of young adults to Israel for 10 days each year.
"Obviously, the domestic need is the priority right now," he said. "We need to meet our obligation to Israel, but we need to make sure we are meeting our needs here."
"We are really at the point where we need to be worrying about clothing the naked and caring for the widow and the orphan," said Aronson .
Just like it says in our tradition.