Saving the whales: Is it Jewish?

PHOENIX, April 6 (JTA) — When more than 200 Jewish philanthropists and foundation professionals gathered here this week, they got a challenge they might not have expected.

Instead of praising their work, one of the first speakers to address the 10th national conference of the Jewish Funders Network questioned the priorities of the conference participants.

“There are so many causes supported by Jews and Jewish organizations without thought or reference to Judaism,” Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, told the group.

“The question ‘What is a Jewish cause?’ needs to be weighed carefully.”

The conference organizers apparently agree, because they chose as this year’s theme: “Saving the Whales: Is it Jewish Funding?”

For Wertheimer, the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” He decried the fact that many Jewish foundations and private funders are pouring more money into non-Jewish causes than Jewish ones, in the pursuit of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

“Increasing numbers of wealthy Jews have decided that the real needs lie elsewhere,” he said, quoting a recent study which found that 70 to 90 percent of the grants provided by Jewish family foundations go to non-Jewish causes.

This is happening, he said, at a time when “a great many Jewish institutions teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.”

“In the process of gaining the world we are losing ourselves,” he warned. “For those of us concerned about the future of the Jewish community, this is a disaster.”

“Are funders acting as responsible Jews?” he asked. “I say no!”

“I ask you to reconsider your priorities,” he implored his listeners, suggesting that a 50-50 split in giving between Jewish and non-Jewish causes would be a big improvement.

His speech clearly rattled some of those listeners, who included a wide range of funders, from individual donors to representatives of large foundations.

But those who might have been offended by Wertheimer’s remarks got some reassurance from the next speaker at the conference, Rabbi David Saperstein.

Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he agreed with Wertheimer that not enough Jewish money was going to Jewish causes. But he passionately defended the importance of supporting non- Jewish causes as well.

Acting on “universal concerns is in our interests,” he said. “We cannot truly be for ourselves without being for others.”

Moreover, Saperstein argued that Jewish funders do not have to support one at the expense of the other.

“I don’t believe it has to be a choice,” he said. “We have the wealth, the wherewithal and the influence to do both.”

Indeed most of the funders attending the Phoenix conference support a vast array of Jewish causes — from a Yiddish festival in Los Angeles to a Jewish day school in Warsaw. And the conference itself was geared to helping those funders be responsible and effective in their funding choices.

“We are about promoting strategic philanthropy,” said Evan Mendelson, JFN’s executive director.

The gathering included plenary sessions, workshops and other “breakout” meetings on such topics as “Education: Funding Strategies That Work,” “Partners Without Borders: Collaborative Funding Internationally,” and “Supporting the Next Generation of Jewish Innovators.”

But while many of the sessions focused on supporting the types of Jewish causes that Wertheimer feels need more attention, others dealt with the more universal causes that Saperstein said deserve Jewish support too.

They included a session on “Funding Advocacy: Strategies for Changing Public Policy on a Living Wage and Gun Control” and another on “Funding as a Global Citizen: Environmental Challenges at Home and Abroad.”

Jeffrey Dekro, president of the Shefa Fund, which promotes Jewish social responsibility, argued during a question-and-answer session following Wertheimer’s and Saperstein’s remarks, that causes such as these are, in fact, Jewish interests, too.

As he put it: “Is clean air and clean water something Jews can do without?”

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