July 26, 2007
Does Hollywood give Jewish?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)That generation was less concerned with Jewish education or culture or benevolent services than with telling the story of Jewish assimilation and affluence in America, said Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
"Their efforts were not altruistic," Bubis said. "They were concerned about what would gentiles think about Jews. The bulk of what they did in the Jewish community was focused on how to protect the good name of the Jews, not to help Jewish people in need."
Some, like talent head William Morris, preferred to support Jewish efforts that dropped the word "Jew" from fundraising literature. And others, like David Selznick, wanted nothing to do with Jewish causes regardless of how they were framed.
"I am not interested in Jewish political problems," Selznick told screenwriter Ben Hecht, according to Hecht's memoir "A Child of the Century," when he was raising money for Jews in Palestine during World War II. "I'm an American and not a Jew. I'm interested in this war as an American. It would be silly of me to pretend suddenly that I'm a Jew, with some sort of full-blown Jewish psychology."
For those not at the top, there was plenty of pressure to give. The United Jewish Welfare Fund circulated a magazine that listed how much Jewish entertainers had given, and the constant demand for money, often coming from studio higher-ups, was enough to drive some crazy.
"Jack Warner demanded that his Jewish employees donate a percentage of their salary to the United Jewish Welfare Fund," Neil Gabler wrote in "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. "During a fundraising drive, he would call them into the studio commissary.
"'When we were all assembled,' screenwriter Alvah Bessie remembered, '[Warner] marched in and -- to our astonishment -- brandished a rubber truncheon, which had probably been a prop for one of the anti-Nazi pictures we were making. He stood behind his table and smashed the length of the rubber hose on the wood, and then he smiled and said, "I've been looking at the results of the Jewish Appeal drive, and believe you me, it ain't good." Here he paused for effect and said, "Everybody's gonna double his contribution here and now -- or else!" The rubber truncheon crashed on the table again as everyone present reached for our checkbooks.'"
Historically, though, Hollywood was considered a dry well for all charitable causes. But a decade ago that trend started to shift, marked by a 1997 New York Times article that stated, "In Hollywood, a new generation of philanthropists is being born -- and not a moment too soon."
The report largely focused on people making sizable contributions to improve L.A. culture -- David Geffen giving $5 million to the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood and Michael Eisner committing $25 million from his then-media empire, the Walt Disney Company, for downtown's Disney Concert Hall -- but also noted people like Spielberg who were donating millions to enrich specific communities.
"For all their glitzy wealth and self-promotion, residents of Los Angeles, particularly members of the entertainment industry, have been relatively stingy when it comes to charity," the paper reported.
Compare that to this turn of phrase by The Hollywood Reporter in its annual philanthropy issue this month. "These days, executives themselves are as likely to be found rolling up their sleeves for charity as they are posing for paparazzi at posh dinners. Indeed, the people at the top can be a nonprofit's best friend."
The shift in Hollywood's attitude toward philanthropy can be partially attributed to a sort of economic enlightenment, said Alan J. Abramson, director of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy program at the Aspen Institute. Hollywood gets that conspicuous acts of charity can be a good investment.
"Celebrities are like corporations, so philanthropy has the same attraction," he said. "It gives them a chance to get their names out there associated with a humanitarian cause that might go down well with the public, and so the public might think better about celebrities like they would about corporations doing philanthropy in the U.S. and the world.
"It is good to better the world, " Abramson said. "But it also makes good business sense."
Hollywood Jews have gotten more involved, too, and they aren't limiting their support to organizations building schools in Israel or fighting anti-Semitism in Europe.
Howard Gordon, executive producer of "24," and his wife, Cami, contribute heavily to both University Synagogue and the Stroke Association of Southern California. They also give to the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, which, among other things, provides college scholarships to inner-city children who maintain good grades.
"Helping someone help themselves is the greatest form of giving," Howard Gordon said. "It was not a Jewish charity, per se, but it is based on Jewish values."
Such enlightenment has put Jewish organizations in fundraising competition with those searching for a cure for breast cancer or trying to slow the pace of global warming. "Or," The Federation's Meredith Weiss said, "whatever the sexiest cause is."
Right now, that would be Africa.
The entire July issue of Vanity Fair, guest-edited by U2's Bono, was dedicated to issues affecting Africa. A front-page Sunday story in the Washington Post last month followed Drew Barrymore up the Capitol steps as she lobbied on behalf of the U.N. World Food Program for African child-feeding programs. George Clooney just filmed the documentary "A Journey to Darfur," Brad Pitt helped start the One Campaign to Make Poverty History after visiting Ethiopia and South Africa, and his love interest, Angelina Jolie, is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Within this milieu, only a short jaunt over the Santa Monica Mountains, Jewish World Watch began three years ago at Valley Beth Shalom and has since received international recognition for its efforts to end the slaughtering in Darfur. The organization receives most of its support from synagogues and schools, public and private, Jewish and Christian.