Book Excerpt: Jewish Family Foundations “Come Together, Right Now”

  • Sandy Cardin

April 26, 2013

What will it take to ensure a vibrant and relevant American Jewish community? It’s the question at the heart of Rabbi Sidney Schwarz’s new book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting a Course for the American Jewish Community of the 21st Century.

In the book, Schwarz and 14 leaders from all sectors across the Jewish community explore the challenges and opportunities the American Jewish community faces as it adapts to a social landscape and works to effectively engage the next generation of American Jews.

I was honored to contribute the chapter on the American Jewish philanthropic community. In it, I look at three promising, albeit nascent, trends of convergence that may represent the dawn of a new era of greater cooperation and collaboration in addressing the areas of concern with which American Jewry is struggling.

Fellow contributors include: Elise Bernhardt, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Dr. Barry Chazan, Dr. David Ellenson, Wayne Firestone, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Anne Lanski, Rabbi Joy Levitt, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Rabbi Or N. Rose, Nigel Savage, Barry Shrage and Dr. Jonathan Woocher. They all offer insights and perspectives that draw on their vast experience to set forth a vision for their respective fields and create, as the publishers call it, “a challenging yet hopeful call for transformational change.”

Below, I share an excerpt here from my chapter, which you can also download. For those interested in reading more, you can find the book on Amazon. You can also check out the Jewish Megatrends Facebook page to find out when the book tour is coming to a city near you.

“Come Together, Right Now”

In 1969, the Beatles released what is now considered their finest record, Abbey Road. While many remember that album more for its iconic cover of the shaggy-haired band crossing the street than for its music, several of its tracks contain timeless lyrics that still resonate more than forty years later. The opening track, “Come Together,” is one such song. Originally penned by John Lennon to help rally support for Timothy Leary during his abbreviated run for governor of California against Ronald Reagan, the words of the chorus could and should serve as another kind of urgent call, this time to the American Jewish philanthropic community: “Come together, right now.”

The American Jewish community is in a state of flux and transition. Demographic challenges, behavioral shifts, religious differences, attitudinal disparities, and re-prioritizations—especially insofar as Israel is concerned— are just a few of the incredibly complex issues confronting and dividing American Jewry. Many of the large, consensus-driven organizations and congregations that served our people so well for years—the so-called “established” Jewish community—are sagging under the weight of these changes, and many of the start-up enterprises striving to gain a foothold in Jewish life are struggling as well.

The response to this reality by the American Jewish philanthropic community—composed primarily of Federations, private foundations, and individual funders—has been largely ineffective and, in some ways, counterproductive. Rather than finding ways to meaningfully work together to address common concerns and leverage the limited resources available to our community, we have generally pursued the larger mission we share—securing a vibrant future for Jewish people everywhere—independently and with remarkably little communication among ourselves.

Of course, the fact that many of us have become distracted from our larger mission is hardly surprising. As my friend and mentor Charles Schusterman (z”l) used to say, “It’s hard to think about draining the swamp when you’re knee-deep in alligators.”

All of the news, however, is not bad or bleak. American Jews have never enjoyed so much social, political, or financial success. In virtually every walk of life, including philanthropy, Jews can be found at the top of the list; nearly half of the signatories to the Giving Pledge—an effort to encourage the wealthiest people in America to give the majority of their wealth to charitable causes—are Jewish. In fact, American Jewry has never been stronger and more capable of charting its own course, a truly remarkable and humbling thought. The key question is, of course, will we?

The Good News and the Bad News

To the extent that the future of American Jewry rests on the financial resources made available to Jewish programs and organizations, the conclusion we can draw from what little data actually exists about American Jewish philanthropy is inconclusive at best and conflicting at worst.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Federation system continues to raise and distribute hundreds of millions of dollars each year through its annual campaigns and endowment funds, and many other Jewish funders contribute impressively to Jewish life. According to a recent report from the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR), approximately $335 million of the funds distributed by fifty-six Jewish foundations went to Jewish causes in 2009 and 2010.1 The IJCR study also shows that the number of foundations in the United States increased more than 50 percent, to 76,545 between 1999 and 2009, of which an estimated 10,000 made grants to Jewish causes.

At the same time, however, there are many reasons for alarm. Information from the 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) showed that among more engaged Jews; just under 33 percent gave to the Federation system. In the decade since that survey was published, the number of donors to the Federation system has diminished by almost 50 percent (from 925,000 to 480,000).2 Perhaps of even greater concern is the fact that 92 percent of the funds raised by the Federation system in its annual campaign comes from just 7 percent of its contributors, and on an inflation-adjusted basis, overall Federation giving is lower today than it was ten years ago.

Outside of the Federation world, the picture is no prettier. According to the NJPS, a mere 26 percent of Jews gave one hundred dollars or more to Jewish causes, and the $335 million figure cited in the IJCR report represents just 24 percent of total giving from Jewish foundations. Indeed, only a very small percentage of American Jewry donates to Jewish causes, and the sums they contribute represent a very small portion of their total giving. Some estimate the percentage going to the Jewish community to be around 15 percent, and the figure is even lower for most of the Jews who have signed the Giving Pledge. That the resources exist is beyond question; whether those resources will be directed to supporting and strengthening American Jewish life is not so clear.

But rather than seeing the glass as half empty, I prefer to see it as half full and would like to address three promising, albeit nascent, trends of convergence within the American Jewish philanthropic community. Properly encouraged, nurtured, and promoted, the following three trends have the potential to make greater collaboration and communication in the American Jewish community the rule, not the exception:

  1. A growing recognition among the most influential funders of Jewish life about the importance of engaging young Jewish adults in ways that speak to their unique needs and interests
  2. A greater appreciation among those same funders about the importance of facilitating greater collaboration among all kinds of programs that seek to inspire young Jewish adults
  3. A growing similarity between the way in which public and private grant makers are raising and distributing their funds

These three points of convergence are important for two reasons. First, they provide evidence that the American Jewish philanthropic community may finally be starting to work together to help young Jews strengthen their Jewish identities. Second, they may represent the dawn of a new era of greater cooperation and collaboration in addressing the many other areas of concern with which American Jewry is struggling.

Of course, these emerging trends could prove illusory. There are many within American Jewish life who still cling to the hope that the tidal wave of changes over the past decade is a passing fad and that the pendulum will eventually swing back to business as usual. They pay lip service to the changes that Sidney Schwarz identifies so well in his lead essay, even as they refuse to reprioritize their time or resources so as to optimize their chances of success in engaging and inspiring young Jews in their respective communities.

Still, if all three of these phenomena continue apace, they will do more than just go a long way toward resolving the specific concerns Schwarz raises about young Jewish adults; they will also have a profound and very positive effect on American Jewry for years to come.

This material is from "Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future" by Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, ©2013, published by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091. 802-457-4000; The Publisher grants permission to you to copy this material. All rights to other parts of this book are still covered by copyright and are reserved to the Publisher. Any other copying or usage requires written permission.

President (former)