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Bleak’ future seen for fund-raising by Jewish federations

WALTHAM, Mass., July 26 — With Jewish federations receiving contributions from only a third of American Jews, the outlook for those organizations is a gloomy one, a local fund-raising consultant told a group of Jewish journalists here at Brandeis University last week. “The future not only lies ahead for federations, it is bleak,” warned David A. Mersky, president of a Newton consulting firm by the same name, in remarks last Thursday to participants in the first Brandeis Fellows Program for Journalism in the Jewish Press. Where once the establishment and well-being of Israel were paramount for American Jewish philanthropists, and Jewish federations were the funnels of that money to Israel, consultants like Mersky are reporting that those concerns are abating and support for the Jewish homeland with them. Federation fund-raising, Mersky said, “now needs to adapt to [a] changing attitude toward Israel.” Fifty years after the founding of Israel, American Jews are living in “a post-federated world.” Mersky’s warnings capped an hour-long presentation in which he cited reasons for the waning interest in Jewish philanthropy. Among the factors figuring in his assessment: * Federations receive contributions from 34 percent of all American Jews. * Only 3 percent of such Jews contribute more than $1,000 to their federations. * Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of those over age 65 donate while only 35 percent of those under 35 contribute. Mersky suggested that changes in the motivations behind Jewish giving may account for the less-than-promising statistics for federations. Donors, he said, “are not motivated by the threat of the loss of [Jewish] identity. Rather, “the major motivation is that giving makes donors feel good. [They] give because of a sense of obligation and responsibility to the Jewish people.” But, as Mersky pointed out, that sense of obligation is not as strong within the younger generation of American Jews. He offered these findings to prove his point: * Less than 50 percent of American Jews give to Jewish philanthropies. “It’s surprising how few, relatively, give Jewishly,” Mersky observed. * Six percent give more than $1,000 to Jewish philanthropy, and the same percentage accounts for $1,000-plus donations to non-Jewish causes. “This [giving to non-Jewish charities] is a recent phenomenon,” Mersky said, noting that “not so long ago Jews couldn’t give” to charities other than Jewish ones. By way of example, he told the journalists (all but one of whom came from cities other than Boston) that decades ago then-philanthropist Sidney Rabb “broke the ice” with his financial support for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Much of the philanthropic backing for the orchestra now “is coming from Jews,” Mersky said. Himself a former vice president of development for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (from 1988-1991), Mersky took note of the newly consummated union of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, which he described as “the merger of two weak sisters.” (See story, Page 1.) Concurrently, the increasing strength of alternative fund-raisers for Israel, such as the New Israel Fund, “says, ‘We don’t trust the process,’” he said. Older Jews who remember when there was no Israel and who supported it in its formative years through their federations and other Jewish charities are no longer doing so, according to Mersky, and, he added, “most younger Jews have never contributed.” He singled out federations for not doing enough to address what he claims are the three most pressing problems American Jewry is wrestling with: assimilation, loss of Jewish identity and lack of Jewish education. “What should federations do to reverse those trends? I see them doing pitifully little,” he said. “They’re not thinking of the donor as the center of the universe; they’re thinking in institutional terms. … We talk the talk, but the donors don’t walk the walk.” ‘A deeply religious nation’ On the plus side of the ledger, Mersky’s data on philanthropy in general at this point in economic history seemed to augur well for fund-raisers of all religious denominations. Charitable donations in this country in 1997 amounted to $143.5 billion, up 7.5 percent, and for the third consecutive year outpaced inflation. Mersky mentioned “strong stock market performance” as a generator of contributions of appreciated securities. The donor of such securities, he said, “gets a bigger tax bang” than he or she would from the current capital gains rate. In his breakdown of the sources of the $143.5 billion in charitable contributions last year, Mersky noted that 50.4 percent of all gifts from individuals — living or dead — supports religious institutions. “We are a deeply religious nation,” he said. “It is evidenced by our philanthropy.”