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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Giving to religious institutions is oft-ignored area of Jewish charity

NEW YORK, June 6 (JTA) — A recent report on American philanthropy shines a light on an area of giving that has long stood in the shadows in the American Jewish community. According to “Giving USA,” contributions to religious causes accounted for the largest share of American philanthropy in 1998. The report was released May 25 by the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy, a New York-based non-profit organization promoting public understanding of philanthropy. Donations to religious congregations and denominations brought in some $76 billion from 1997 to 1998, representing 43.6 percent of a record $175 billion in allocated giving last year. This accounting includes all tax-deductible gifts to religious institutions, including offerings, donations and membership dues, but not tuition to religious schools. When the Jewish community looks at its philanthropic pie chart, however, this kind of religious giving is not usually part of the picture. “The pieces that get the most attention are the pieces that go to the federation world,” said Jack Wertheimer, an authority on Jewish communal philanthropy, referring to the fund-raising efforts of Jewish community federations and the United Jewish Appeal. But the pieces that go to Jewish religious institutions, Wertheimer said, “may be greater.” The Jewish community tends to focus on the success of charities such as the community federations of New York and Chicago, American “friends of” Israeli universities and organizations such as Hadassah — the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which rank annually among the top 400 philanthropies in the country. In his article on “Current Trends in American Jewish Philanthropy” in the American Jewish Committee’s 1997 American Jewish Yearbook, Wertheimer estimated that “the combined annual budgets of synagogues, Jewish denominational institutions and Jewish day schools easily exceed $2 billion annually — and perhaps closer to $2.5 billion. “In other words, they take in between $750 million to $1 billion more than comes to federations from Jewish sources annually,” he wrote. In 1998, the combined annual campaign of what is now called the United Jewish Communities — the new entity formed through the merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal — raised $760 million for domestic and overseas needs. Wertheimer acknowledges that comparing contributions to the UJC with Jews’ “religious giving” is a complicated proposal. But he believes that more attention should be paid to the religious sector of Jewish giving, which represents a significant portion of American Jews’ yearly budget and affects the amount they are able to contribute elsewhere.
The significant amount of money flowing into the religious sector “says a great deal about the Jewish family budget and the Jewish communal budget, how money is being spent and what the priorities are,” Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, said in a telephone interview. “If you don’t count any of that, it’s easy to downplay the importance of that sector.” Like federations, synagogues are “a critically important address,” Wertheimer said, attracting “more members than any other Jewish institution besides cemeteries.” The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that of American households in which all members are Jewish, 41 percent pay dues to a synagogue or temple. Synagogue affiliation, the survey says, is the “most widespread form of formal Jewish connection.” Ann Kaplan, the Association for Fund-Raising Counsel Trust’s research director and the editor of its report, said that religion has historically represented the largest share of Americans’ charitable giving. In a telephone interview, she added that the vast majority of religious congregations today serve as multipurpose institutions, involved in human services, the arts and even international affairs, above and beyond their sacramental and theological purposes. “The roots of philanthropy were with religious institutions,” she said. “They were the earliest non-profits, in a sense.” The “Giving USA” report showed that overall charitable giving rose by 11 percent last year — an increase that does not reflect last year’s stock market boom. Foundation grant-making, however, jumped 20 percent. Recipients of contributions showing the greatest gains over last year were health, human service, environment and public benefit organizations. But in terms of total dollars, religion makes up the largest piece of the philanthropic pie, followed by education. One implication of the report, Wertheimer said, is that outside the Jewish community, “a great deal of attention is given to the religious sector.”