Jewish Journal

The economy and the Jewish future

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 27, 2009 | 9:45 am

I’ve done a lot of bloviating about the consequences for the Jewish community of the economic downturn and the Bernard Madoff investment scandal. But Jonathan Sarna, the imminent American Jewish historian, recently gave a speech to the Jewish Funders Network that provides everything you need to know about how American Jews became so wealthy and where the community is headed.

The Jewish Journal has published a transcript of his talk. Here’s what I found to be the most telling part:

At the moment, following billions of dollars in losses to Jewish endowments and a significant decline in annual gift giving, different sectors of the American Jewish community are busy explaining to all who will listen why their particular area of the Jewish economy has to be preserved at all costs. Human services (obviously a priority in tough times); Jewish education (as necessary as oxygen); Jewish camping (shapes Jewish memories and lifelong associations); innovative Jewish start-ups (they are the most efficient sector of the Jewish economy and in many ways the most creative); Birthright Israel (perhaps the most successful program we have established in decades & critical to preserving American Jews’ ties to Israel). And so on and so forth—more or less every program is too good to give up. In a way, the community is like my university: everyone understands that we need to cut back in hard times. The faculty simply insists that: nothing be cut from crucial areas like the arts, the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences and the co-curriculars. Everything else is on the table!

The problem in the American Jewish community at large is that, aside from killing off CAJE: The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the American Jewish Congress, nobody has put forth serious ideas about how to cut the Jewish communal budget by one-third. That, however, might well be what we need to do. Foundations, even not taking into account the Madoff losses, are about one-third poorer than they were this time last year. If the downturn stretches into 2010, annual campaigns may be down by one-third as well.

Inevitably in downturns, the weaker organizations are the first to fall. As Warren Buffett observed in his usual colorful way, “you don’t know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out.“ My own guess is that, at the very least, many of the Hebrew colleges, many of the bureaus of Jewish education, several of the Jewish museums and some other shakier Jewish organizations will not survive this downturn.

Orthodox Jewish organizations are apparently in the worst shape. Orthodox Jews have been disproportionately involved in banking and the stock market, and were also disproportionately hurt by Madoff ($2 billion, by one account, were lost by members of a single Orthodox synagogue). They also are heavy users of our most expensive Jewish institutions (synagogues and schools). I have felt for a long time—and for numerous reasons—that Orthodoxy’s rise had run its course. My sense is that the downturn will confirm this. I do not expect to see same kind of Orthodox growth moving forward as we have seen since 1960s, and my guess, sadly, is that some significant Orthodox institutions will not survive.

Sarna goes on to detail seven trends to watch:

I do not have high confidence that we can predict the future today any more clearly.

But this much I am prepared to predict: the economic downturn will end, the stock market will turn around, Jews will begin to make money again, and Jewish funders will regain their confidence and search for new ways to make our community better and stronger.

Let’s hope that this happens soon.

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