In his first article as executive editor of Commentary, Jonathan Tobin writes that that Jewish community has much bigger problems than the hundreds of millions of dollars lost by nonprofits in the Bernard Madoff investment mess. The most pressing issue, Tobin writes, is the resurgence of the “continuity crisis,” which the Jewish community has struggled with for two decades. An excerpt:
The results of the past two decades suggest that the outreach model is a failure; individual Jewish federations and most communal organizations have seen declines in fundraising, and what data there are indicate that these efforts have done little to renew the commitment of Jews on the margins to the community or its future. Indeed, one of the reasons that generous Jews have been so determined to bypass the larger Jewish communal organizations may well be that those organizations have been so ineffectual in addressing the concerns of committed members of the community who have wanted to use their wealth to ensure a specifically Jewish future in the United States and in Israel. The consensus-driven culture of Jewish philanthropy has, predictably, failed to make a decisive choice with respect to the future of American Jewry.
The combined crises of 2008—the financial collapse and the Madoff scandal—will certainly exacerbate this dilemma and perhaps even sharpen the debate over the allocation of dollars. But the devastating losses created by Madoff pale when set beside the more pressing concern of demographic decline and the possibility that the decline in the number of people who are interested in Jewish causes will only accelerate over time unless something is done to arrest it.
The inability of the apparatus of Jewish philanthropy to find the will to focus its existing resources on the threat posed by rising levels of assimilation dwarfs the worries generated by financial scandals, even those as serious as that of Madoff.
I wrote a story that will be published this week about related changes at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The umbrella organization is trying to engage new members in the process of communal building, but by extending its funding to non-traditional organizations and reducing its support to blue-bloods, some have voice strong displeasure with the changes.
“There is no sense of the value of keeping a community together,” said the president of a nonprofit traditionally supported by the Federation. “We’re just going to have to make it on our own.”
More on that later.
(Hat tip: The Fundermentalist)