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Worsening economy takes further toll on Jewish nonprofits

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 20, 2008 | 1:41 pm

I was tied up last week writing a cover story about what the bad economy means for the Jewish community:

These are tough times for all Americans. The drama working its way through the economy—surging gas and food prices, crises in the housing and financial markets, climbing unemployment rates and a dismal overall outlook—has been written into the American Jewish story, too.

That paragraph, however, was the nutgraph for a cover story I wrote about the economy only four months ago. It’s amazing how much worse it’s gotten since then.

The stock market, which closed under 8,000 yesterday fro the first time since 2003, has been so schizophrenic that it’s been up 500 points in the morning only to close down 200 or more. Everyone, Americans and those abroad, are being affected. Nonprofits have less money coming in the front and more demands knocking on the back door. And we’re not even technically in a recession yet.

Already, though, people are praying for help:

Something needed to be done. Something maybe only God could do. So the leaders of Israel’s largest seminaries designated Nov. 13 a day of prayer for Jewish philanthropists—“a united effort to storm the gates of heaven and plead for the financial health of Jewish philanthropists, so that they can continue to support Torah institutions in Israel.”

No one has gone unscathed by the convulsions of the global economy. Even the wealthy are losing money—and if they cut their charitable giving, it is likely to ripple across the Jewish nonprofit sector.

Birthright Israel appears to be an early victim.

The charity, which sends Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 on all-expenses-paid 10-day pilgrimages to the Jewish state, had a sugar daddy in casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who gave a combined $60 million in 2006 and 2007—about a third of the program’s operating budget. Since October 2007, the value of Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands, has plummeted from a stock price of $138 to just above $5 on Nov. 12. Adelson personally has lost more than $30 billion.

Not coincidentally, Birthright announced this month that it is slashing its budget by $35 million, down from $110 million. Next year, the organization plans to send only 25,000 young Jews to Israel, compared with 42,000 this year.

A weak—though improving—dollar has added to the decline in funds for organizations doing work overseas. The Jewish Agency for Israel, for example, announced last month that it would cut $45 million, or about 15 percent, of its 2009 budget. This followed the slashing in June of 60 jobs at the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which was facing a $60 million budget deficit, and cuts in May of 32 jobs and $3.2 million in expenses at the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for North American federations.

In past years, nonprofits have been expanding programs and operational budgets. Now leaders are worrying about how to maintain revenues and evaluating where they can cut corners, save on staff or draw back services.

Many local Jewish organizations say that so far donations are still on pace with last year—but the last six weeks of the year typically account for a huge chunk, in some cases 20 percent, of the annual campaign. And these are tough times to be asking for money.

“People are looking at their wealth, their incomes, their holdings, and they are concerned. But it is sort of like gazing into a crystal ball,” said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “We’ve had very, very good results on our phone squads. We’ve had very few people who said no. These are smaller donors; that makes us cautiously optimistic that we will finish well. But 2009 remains a question mark.”

You can read the rest here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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