Jewish Journal

The changing nature of Jewish philanthropy

Q & A with Marvin I. Schotland

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Nov. 15, 2007 at 7:00 pm

The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles has assets of $750 million, including $312 million in donor-advised funds for about 1,500 people. Donors range from those with a few thousand dollars to multimillionaires.

Offering the built-in philanthropic guidance of a community federation with the individualized mission of a personal foundation, last year the foundation directed $46 million from donor-advised funds to charities with projects ranging from awakening Jewish identity among young adults (Reboot) to stopping genocide in Darfur (Jewish World Watch).

Foundation president and CEO Marvin I. Schotland sat down with The Jewish Journal recently to talk about the changing nature of Jewish philanthropy.

Jewish Journal: Why does the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles allow donors to give money to non-Jewish organizations?

Marvin Schotland: Part of our tradition, the Jewish tradition, is a concept of tikkun olam, which is repairing the world. We at the Jewish Community Foundation think it is important to be part of the community in which we live.

While our primary focus is to build and strengthen and maintain the Jewish community, we understand the Jewish community is part of a larger community called Los Angeles, and it is important for us as a foundation to be part of that larger community, and we support our donors to being part of that larger community.

It's good for the larger community, it's good for the Jewish community, and it's good for the Jewish Community Foundation. It is important for us to strengthen the fabric of the entire community. The starting point of that fabric is the Jewish community, but it is not the endpoint.

JJ: How is Jewish philanthropy different today than it was 10 years ago or 50 years ago?

MS: If you compare 50 years ago to today, Jews are completely woven into the fabric of life in America at every level -- I don't think you could say that 50 years ago, when there were barriers and impediments. As that freedom to express ourselves has evolved and we have become part and parcel of the fabric of American society in ways that are completely different, what has occurred is Jews are more comfortable in participating in organizations that are contributing to the larger community.

So what you see is Jews' continuing support for the Jewish community and institutions but being much more selective about how they do that. And, simultaneously, they are more open to participating in nonsectarian organizations as a way of expressing their Jewish values for repairing the world.

JJ: What issues right now are the major recipients of individual donations?

MS: Education is always a hot button, whether it is within the Jewish community or the larger community. Young people being educated and being trained to contribute to the Jewish community and the larger society is important. It's important to the Jewish community; it's important to our donors....

Another area where you see a great deal of philanthropic resource being delivered is to people who are the underclass, people who are underprivileged, who don't have the capacity on their own to make it in this world ... to help them figure out a way they can become productive members of society.

A third, which tends to be a little narrow, but I think there is a tremendous amount of support for arts and culture in our society. Those are the three broad categories.

JJ: Traditionally, charity has been seen as a way of "doing Jewish." Can someone be fully partaking in an element of being Jewish without being involved in charity?

MS: Being Jewish is a very complicated piece of business. There are a whole set of values that [constitute] some kind of theoretical model -- if one was to say, I am the "perfect" Jew or individual and went check, check, check down a list -- tzedakah, tikkun olam, charity is part of it; it is part of our tradition.

Having said that, I think you could list another 49 elements -- I'm not going to do that; rabbis do it all the time -- of behaviors that one is to engage in that make you a fully integrated Jewish human being in the world. Having said that, most of us fall short of that ideal.

So where does charity fit in? I think people can be Jewish and are Jewish and feel that they are Jewish and say that they are Jewish, and are, in fact, doing Jewish things, and they may not be charitable. But then you could argue about what is charitable.

Is someone who has nothing and gives away $10 more or less charitable than someone who has, quotation marks, "everything" and gives away a few million dollars? I don't know the answer to that.

What I can say is that one of the things I think makes the Jewish Community Foundation a really attractive place for lots of people is we have a really open-arms attitude toward people who come to us. They come from every aspect of the Jewish community, both from one end of the religious spectrum to the other, from one end of the political spectrum to the other, from one end of how they live their life and what is most important to the other.

But what brings them together in this family is that, in one way or another, each one of them feels they have some responsibility to give something back in some way, and they see us as an important communal tool to doing that.

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