October 18, 2007
Welcome to the new world of do-it-yourself Jewish philanthropy
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"With today's donors, it is more of a business transaction," said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. "They want to know they are getting the most out of it."
The upside, experts say, is that philanthropists are more inspired to create ambitious new programs. The case study is Taglit-Birthright Israel, the concept for which originated when philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt saw the lack of connection to Israel among younger Jews as a threat to the future of the Tribe. They believed sending Jews, ages 18-26, to Israel, free of cost, would be a priceless investment. And instead of waiting for an established Jewish organization to adopt and finance their vision, they pumped their own money into the project and urged the federations and Israel to follow suit.
Seven years later, Birthright has sent 145,000 Jewish young adults to visit the Holy Land and, hopefully, thereby developing a stronger connection with the Jewish world.
"The Birthright Israel program is one of the best ideas our time has seen, because it has the greatest potential to maintain Jewish continuity in the face of growing assimilation," Sheldon Adelson, the United States' richest Jew, said in February when his foundation pledged $25 million. "By founding the Birthright program, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman have given one of the greatest gifts to the Jewish people in our generation."
But for every positive there is a negative. And when everyone wants to support the cause closest to their heart, who is left to care for those not near anyone?
East Los Angeles is at least two freeway interchanges and several generations removed from today's L.A. Jewry. But there the community's early history rests eternally, amid well-worn bungalows, rusted chain-link fences and canopy-free, sun-bleached streets.
Head north on Downey Street across Interstate 5, and you'll immediately be greeted by the tattered and peeling black-and-white sign of Beth Israel Cemetery, where hundreds of Jews have been buried during the past century and continue to be. Half a block north is Agudath Achim Cemetery, which similarly is operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary. Neither is regal or elaborate, mostly concrete crypts stacked side-by-side, only loose dirt for landscaping.
But between the two cemeteries is a more forgotten home. The wrought-iron gate, pinned shut with two Master locks, simply says "Mt Z." Inside is Mount Zion Cemetery, rows upon rows of headstones baring menorahs and the Star of David, Feldmans and Ungers and Goldbergs and Rosens and Nefts and Pearlmans and Schwartzes and Raskins and Segelmans. Some of the crypts are tagged with graffiti, others simply cracked. It's not maintained by a mortuary but by The Federation or, in essence, the whole Jewish community. It looks peaceful now, but throughout the years, the graveyard hasn't always fared well.
"Jewish law commands that people honor the deceased," a 1995 New York Times story began, "but the weeds thriving at Mount Zion Cemetery appear to have deeper roots than the local Jewish community, which long ago moved out of the neighborhood and stopped tending the graves."
Another commandment of Jewish law is tzedakah. Loosely translated as charity, it really means working for justice in a world gone wrong, a cousin of tikkun olam (repair the world). The religious expectation is that Jews will give at least 10 percent of their wealth to the needy, a value apparent in the history of Los Angeles Jews.
In 1854, only 13 years after the first Jew is believed to have stopped in the region, the Hebrew Benevolent Society was established to provide free burials for the poor. (Now known as Jewish Family Service, that legacy is apparent at the Freda Mohr Multipurpose Senior Center on Fairfax Avenue, in the food delivery program for the homebound and the Gramercy Place Shelter for families trying to get off the street -- programs not limited to Jews.) Other organizations, like The Federation, were created by Jews who sought to give substance and stature to a community once largely excluded from the society created here by Protestant Midwesterners.
"Jewish philanthropy was not only a matter of helping people in need, but the activity itself was a way of doing Jewish, an act of creating or fostering Jewish life," said David Kaufman, a professor of American Jewish history at HUC-JIR. "The Federation movement, which peaked through the '20s, '30s and '40s, was not only functional, but it was also a matter of structuring the Jewish community, of giving polity ... almost as a substitute, as a surrogate, for Jewish religion. As secularism has declined and religiosity has come back, that need has also declined."
Which leaves Jewish organizations like The Federation in the position where they need to reinvent themselves -- or at least the way they connect with their patrons -- or risk fading into obsolescence.
"The old game of guilt, obligation, and intimidation," Tobin said, "won't work any more."
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