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American Jewish GDP is $9.7 billion

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 24, 2009 | 10:16 am

No one would argue that Jewish life in America is cheap. Hebrew school, synagogue dues, summer camp, bar and bat mitzahs, kosher food, the occasional trip to Israel—it all adds up. And then, of course, there is the expectation of tzedakah. But just how much money do American Jews pump into their communal organizations, from those providing vocational training to Jewish education to pro-Israel advocacy?

Try $9.7 billion.

That is the number that Mark Pearlman, who runs the JInsider website, is calling the Jewish GDP, which, according to the World Bank, would place the American Jewish communal output above Armenia, the Congo and Cambodia and below Equatorial Guinea, Georgia and Nepal. Not exactly titans of industry, but considering the fact that this is only a fraction of American Jewish production, it’s pretty impressive.

Pearlman has put his Jewish GDP Study online, and Gary Rosenblatt made it the subject of his column for The Jewish Week. An excerpt:

Pearlman used publicly available filings, primarily via the Web sites GuideStar and Charity Navigator, from more than 400 Jewish non-profit organizations, and focused on all financial data. The revenue data for each organization was then “compiled and categorized according to systematic service groupings” like education, communal life, etc.

The results, he readily admits, are incomplete, in large part because religious organizations are exempt from filing tax reports available to the public. But what he has found makes for some fascinating study and discussion points in our community — for instance, that the Jewish GDP is $9.7 billion, with most funds going to social welfare (25 percent), followed by education (20 percent).

Twelve percent of services provided go for communal life, with 3 percent for advocacy, 1 percent for the arts, and less than 1 percent for Arab-Israel relations.

More than 25 percent of all funds come through the Jewish federation system, and 33 percent of all revenue is concentrated among the top 10 nonprofits, including UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hadassah, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Yeshiva University, FEGS Health and Human Service System, Jewish Geriatric Center.

Perhaps most surprising is that no Jewish organization has undertaken this kind of data gathering, which could create a clear and standardized annual snapshot of how many — and how — Jewish nonprofit dollars are generated in this country.

Read the rest of Rosenblatt’s column here. One phenomenon apparent in Pearlman’s study, which Jonathan Sarna previously addressed, is that too many Jewish organizations do the same thing.

“Each category has hundreds of organizations doing similar things,” Shalom Elcott, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, told Rosenblatt. “In this economy, there is no way we can maintain that kind of duplication.”

It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

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