Young Jewish philanthropists talk about money

Philanthropist Scott Belsky and his sister, Gila Belsky. (Susan Kaplan)

Philanthropist Scott Belsky and his sister, Gila Belsky. (Susan Kaplan)

NEW YORK, March 29 (JTA) — Throughout high school, Alvin lived an unusual lie. Offended by what he remembers as the “conspicuous consumption” of his peers at Choate, the Connecticut prep school, he tried to hide his family’s wealth. He claimed he was on financial aid, hung out with the kids of faculty members and prayed no one would realize that a school scholarship in his family name was named after a member of his own family. When he revealed his secret to a crush, she was shocked — which meant he was thrilled. “I can honestly tell you that was one of my happiest days of my high school career,” said Alvin, now 22, a junior at New York University. When Alvin, who asked that his last name not be used, joined a peer group for young Jews on or soon to join the boards of their family foundations two years ago, it was as much group therapy as a chance to conceive his own philanthropic vision. “I can’t tell you how many different versions of the same story that we would all tell as a group about the guilt about coming from wealth,” he said. The group, called Grand Street, is a 2-year-old project of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. Each year, it hosts a retreat and an ongoing peer network for about a dozen 18- to 28-year-olds as they consider how to further their own Jewish values through their family’s foundations. The public emergence of the Grand Street program comes as a study by the Boston College Social Welfare Institute estimates that $41 trillion will be transferred from the oldest to the youngest generations of family foundations by the year 2052. Jewish family foundations make up a big chunk of that wealth. There are more than 8,000 family foundations that list Jewish giving as part of their mission, according to Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network. Together those foundations account for some $3 billion in annual giving, he said. Engaging young Jewish philanthropists and transferring the wealth of family foundations will be key topics this week at the international conference of the Jewish Funders Network. The conference, scheduled for April 3 to 5 in Baltimore, is considered a forum for some of the most innovative thinking in Jewish philanthropy. These young philanthropists are a part of the next generation “that will potentially have enormous leverage over the resources that become available either to the general community or the Jewish community or both,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of Bronfman Philanthropies. Some heirs to great fortunes have found it easy to follow in their parents Jewish footsteps. For others, it’s been a journey. Adam Bronfman, the son of Edgar Bronfman, Sr., a towering figure in the world of Jewish philanthropy, is poised to one day take over the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, where he is currently managing director. He credits his commitment to Jewish philanthropy to his father, who, he says, encouraged his self-exploration. But his decision to become personally involved in Jewish philanthropy came when he had children. “I wanted to identify something where I could impart a moral and ethical and intellectual structure into our family life that had enough validity to be lasting,” he said. “It was pretty clear as a Jew the appropriate place for me to go was to my heritage.” Bronfman said he values a pluralistic, welcoming Jewish culture, which he cites as a central tenet of his family foundation. The Samuel Bronfman Foundation funds such projects as myjewishlearning.com, an educational Web site. Stacy Schusterman, the daughter of Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman and the treasurer of their Tulsa, Okla.-based foundation, said she acquired many of her Jewish values from her parents. “I think that my parents presented a love of Israel and a love of Judaism in a very positive way growing up, and that my dad and I spent time talking about how Jews have made many positive contributions to the world,” said Schusterman, who is expected to take over the foundation some day. In her own foundation, which is smaller and separate from the family one, Schusterman said she has followed some of the same funding goals as her parents. She supports such groups as Hillel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, to invest in both Jewish youth and the health of the Jewish state. But for other heirs, finding their Jewish niche has been more of a challenge. Grand Street, whose organizers will present their concept at the funders’ conference, is one of a very few programs that helps young Jewish philanthropists explore their values and commitments. Another such program is the Younger Funders Initiative, a 6-year-old program of the Jewish Funders Network, which has worked with hundreds of young Jews to help them clarify their Jewish commitment to philanthropy. Programs range from a Chanukah dinner to a young funders track at the Funders Network biennial conference. Charendoff, of the Funders Network, said young Jews are “much more likely to give to any cause that they feel is effective and any cause that they have a relationship with, but whether those causes are Jewish per se or not is less likely to be a determinant.” Younger Jews have less allegiance to traditional Jewish institutions than their parents, according to experts in the field. Young Jewish philanthropists once were groomed by federations, but those institutions are less powerful in today’s assimilated world than they used to be, said Michael Steinhardt, a major philanthropist to Jewish causes. Jews, wealthy or not, will donate to interests that resonate with them, he said. Younger Jews must be exposed to Jewish education and visits to Israel to create such a bond, he said. But when most Jewish organizations solicit young philanthropists, they often overlook their audience’s world view by seeking to bolster the life of the institution. It’s what Solomon calls the “problem of supply-side Judaism versus demand-side Judaism.” “Today too much of what goes on in the Jewish community is driven by institutional life,” what the institution offers, rather than “creating demand for Jewish life by letting people explore issues of identity, community and meaning,” he said. Young funders are more interested in finding meaning in new entrepreneurial ventures. And they want a say in where their dollars are spent — they are not satisfied by simply handing over authority to a Jewish organization or federation. In that sense, the Jewish family foundations, which set their own agendas, are a natural fit for the philanthropic sensibilities of young Jews. “The days when one simply wrote the check to the Jewish federation and let them disperse it are past, and I think the role models for these young people are the family foundations,” said Jonathan Sarna, who holds a chair in American Jewish history at Brandeis University. Scott Belsky, a 25-year-old professional at Goldman Sachs, said the Grand Street program has helped him make a greater impact on the board of the Stanley H. Kaplan Family foundation, named for his grandfather, the test preparation guru. He could have been just a twentysomething, “going to a family foundation meeting and have nothing to say,” he said, but “now I feel like I’m able to add value” to a key focus of his family’s foundation: how to engage young Jews. Through Grand Street, he said, “the conversations we’re having are making us understand each other more and ourselves more, and that’s something we leverage in our foundations.”

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