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Jewish Journal

It May Be Time to Change Goals, Ideas on Philanthropy

by Michael Steinhardt

July 27, 2006 | 8:00 pm

I have a dream in which Jewish early childhood educators in the United States, who currently receive an average salary of $9.66 an hour, can raise their own children without having to take out loans or marry rich. I have a dream in which Birthright Israel does not have to keep tens of thousands of potential participants on waiting lists for lack of funds. I have a dream in which non-Orthodox day schools truly rival the best private schools and the Jewish socioeconomic elite clamor to enter them.

While these dreams are remote and quixotic, American Jews have achieved levels of wealth unprecedented in our history. The problem is that we no longer give much to Jewish causes.

We are donors to universities, museums, orchestras and hospitals, but when it comes to Jewish philanthropy, we fall short. Today, perhaps 20 percent or less of Jewish giving goes to Jewish causes.

In the middle of the 20th century, it was about 50 percent. Only half of the Jews surveyed in 1990 claimed to have given to a Jewish cause. Of the $5.3 billion in megagifts given by America's wealthiest Jews between 1995 and 2000, a mere 6 percent went to Jewish institutions.

Among those who do give, the levels of giving are weak. Only 11 percent of Jews donate over $1,000 to Jewish causes.

Can you name a serious non-Orthodox American Jewish philanthropist below the age of 50?

There may be one or two, but it would be looking for a needle in a haystack. Even those who give Jewishly give smaller amounts to Jewish charity than to secular causes.

Too many ignore programs of Jewish education and culture, focusing instead on antiquated preoccupations, such as the fight against anti-Semitism. In North America, the greatest threat to the Jewish people is not the external force of anti-Semitism but the internal forces of apathy, inertia and ignorance of our own heritage.

People's giving is a mirror image of who they are. Over time, we have become meaningfully more American and less Jewish. That is reflected in our philanthropy.

We have lost not only our connection to Jewish roots but also our understanding of why Jewish identity and involvement matter. It's an unfortunate cycle: attenuation of identity leads to reduced philanthropic giving, which, in turn, hobbles our efforts to create programs to enrich identity.

How, then, does one revive Jewishness in an increasingly secular American world? Not easy. Too many of our needs are no longer fulfilled Jewishly. Today's synagogues and other institutions no longer appeal to the Jewish spirit the way they used to.

Tzedakah is an outcome, an end product of what we care about, what we want to enhance, what we believe in and what we want to see grow. If we were to apply these hopes to our present community, I'm not sure we would like what we see. The community has not operated by a set of norms and standards of what constitutes appropriate tzedakah. People who have amassed enormous wealth are told by 'professionals' that they're the most altruistic individuals since Robin Hood, regardless of what they give. There are few role models in the community who represent our tradition of giving 10 percent of income or assets.

Historically, the rabbis of past periods anticipated neither the wealth nor the longevity of many contemporary Jews. If they had, they surely would have insisted on even higher levels of giving.

Recognizing that we are far removed from the bare-bones survival of the immigrant generation, it may be time to reconfigure what is the right level of tzedakah and what we should expect from our givers. One of our philanthropic goals may be to develop an ethic of higher levels of giving in relation to net worth.

For a person with assets of $100 million -- and there are many such people today -- annual philanthropy of $500,000 or $1 million is not serious. Yet, the community fawns as if these individuals have given amounts that are truly selfless.

At present, there is little accountability between wealth and philanthropy. This must end. A person earning $45,000 who gives $5,000 in tzedakah should be acknowledged as heroic, even though he may not get his name on a building. We need to become part of a movement to change the perception of giving, to spread the notion that real meaning in life comes from selfless acts of philanthropy and to inculcate a sense of responsibility for the fate of klal Yisrael among those who have achieved high levels of wealth.

The challenge is daunting. In a community where people want their names up in lights, where we have a cadre of professionals known as 'directors of development,' whose ambition is to separate rich Jews from their money, how can we create a sense of justice, of fairness between rich and poor and recognize true philanthropy? How can we accomplish this in a free and open society? On the one hand, we value our privacy. How many of us enjoyed the public displays when there was card-calling at events? For many of us, there is something unseemly about it.

I'm not immune to the conflict. In my various philanthropic efforts, I have valued the Maimonidean principle of modesty and indeed anonymity. Yet I, too, have had my name put on some projects and buildings. I frankly feel deeply conflicted.

I think it is a higher calling not to use one's name, but I haven't always been able to reach that higher level.

One of the goals of the emerging Fund for Our Jewish Future is to usher in a culture of vastly increased levels of Jewish giving. The fund plans to raise tens of millions immediately for priority action in Jewish education. Hopefully, this will be followed by a series of focused funds to revivify Jewish commitment levels. Another goal of the fund is to approach individual communities and offer local philanthropists the opportunity to receive significant outside funds for projects that they are prepared to give meaningful down payments toward.

It is clear that what we need is imagination to view our Jewish future in a way that will capture the spirit of those Jews who are mostly on the sidelines today.

We don't have many of the needed answers. But through hard work, creativity and, again, imagination, we can begin to reach the presently unreachable. With success, the result will be a renaissance of Jewish life in which our flourishing communal structures inspire greater Jewish involvement and commitment, which in turn inspire even greater levels of tzedakah.

Michael Steinhardt is co-founder of Birthright Israel.

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