Jewish Journal

Spielberg Gives $1 Million for Israel Relief

Could donation reignite Hollywood giving?

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Aug. 20, 2006 at 8:00 pm

When the Righteous Persons Foundation, created and financed by Steven Spielberg, announced earlier this month that it was giving $1 million for relief efforts in Israel, including $250,000 to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles crisis fund, the impact went beyond the donation itself.

"Having someone like Steven Spielberg back a cause provides a seal of approval, a mark of credibility, for much of the Hollywood community," said Andy Spahn, in charge of philanthropic and political relations for Spielberg and his DreamWorks partner, Jeffrey Katzenberg.

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation, agreed. "As in every other field, people tend to follow the leader," he said.

However, in line with Federation policy, Fishel would not give the names or contributions of others in the entertainment industry that have followed Spielberg's example. Since its establishment in 1994 through Spielberg's personal profits from "Schindler's List," the Righteous Persons Foundation has contributed about $1.2 million to the Jewish Federation and its agencies, Spahn said.

Katzenberg, who spreads his philanthropy among many Jewish and other organizations, has given a total of about $50,000 to Federation agencies.

But large donations by some individuals cannot mask a marked decline over the decades in Hollywood's proportion of total communal giving to the Jewish Federation. Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the Mayers, Goldwyns, Cohns, Warners and Laemmles ruled the studios, the then-Jewish Welfare Fund's amusement industry division contributed one-third, or around $2 million, to the annual total.

Last year, the Federation collected around $47 million, but only between 8 percent and 10 percent came from Hollywood, Fishel said, far less, for instance, than from the real estate sector.

But Fishel doesn't buy the "stereotype" that Hollywood Jews are not involved in the community or in backing Israel.

"Remember that the founders of the movie industry were largely immigrants who knew Jewish poverty and persecution at first hand and lived to see the Holocaust and the birth of Israel," Fishel said.

By contrast, Hollywood's chiefs and celebrities, like their contemporaries in other areas, are part of the American mainstream, with diversified interests and charities.

The good news, Fishel said, is that the last decade has seen the emergence of young and middle-aged professionals in Hollywood and elsewhere deeply interested in their Jewish roots and in Israel.

Their contributions can be counted not only in money, but in their talents and expertise.

"During the fighting in Lebanon, I got calls from many talented people who wanted to talk and think about how Israel's case could best be presented to the American public," said Fishel. "I see these people not just as financial contributors, but as shapers of our culture and communications."

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