SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Jewish foundations are growing by leaps and bounds, giving away billions of dollars, and supporting practically every cause and organization you can imagine. This is good news, unless of course you are in the camp that believes Jews and the foundations they create are misguided if they give to non-Jewish rather than Jewish organizations.
We examined about 50 of the largest and most prominent foundations established by Jews and looked at where they made their more than 8,000 grants in 2004 and 2005, the latest years for which comprehensive information is available.
The findings confirm our previous research: About 80 percent of the dollars they gave away went to general causes – higher education, health care, arts and culture, programs for the poor and elderly, the environment and more. About 20 percent went to Jewish causes, including 7 percent for Israel-related purposes.
A few of the foundations gave most of their dollars to Jewish causes, some split and a number gave nothing or almost nothing to Jewish organizations. It is a wide range and is to be expected.
Some of the Jews who established these foundations were or are devoted to building Jewish life through day schools, Jewish community centers and supporting Israel in any way they can. Others see their path differently; they care most about fighting AIDS in Africa or improving the quality of public education in our nation’s schools.
Foundations and their founders have varied goals and even more varied means to achieve them. It is wrong to assume that foundations established by Jews that give to secular causes have lost their way for choosing to give the way they do or to assert that they must not care much about being Jewish. Even worse is chastising them for being uncaring or even self-hating Jews. These are charges that often are leveled, unfairly, at Jews who are generous to America and the world.
Foundations make their grants because of compelling moral and ethical reasons. They are operating within the most important guidelines of Jewish law and tradition to help all people in need. Our research on Jewish foundations should spur discussion and debate, but also should be a cause for celebration for how well Jews have integrated into and succeeded in American society. Moreover, Jews are involved global citizens and many feel they can express their Jewish sensibilities by serving the larger society.
Nevertheless, Jewish foundations, as with all foundations, have room for improvement, especially in holding recipients accountable. For example, Jewish foundations donate millions to colleges and universities that do not do enough to deal with anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on their campuses. Such issues should concern Jews and Americans in general. How foundations provide proper oversight, however, is a different issue than choosing Jewish or secular causes.
Of course, Jewish causes and organizations need support, too, and legitimate questions should be raised about how to increase the proportions and totals of the dollars they receive from Jewish foundations. Legitimate questions, however, are not the same as whining, complaining, kvetching and somehow feeling entitled to foundation money because a founder is Jewish.
We have to ask tough questions about Jewish organizations themselves. Are they high quality? Are they efficient? Are they duplicative? Do they achieve the outcomes and results they promise? Do they add value to the lives of Jews and others? Jewish organizations should not receive funding just because they represent the Jewish community. They deserve support if they have a compelling case. Sometimes they don’t.
Even when they do offer compelling causes to foundations, their message and tactics can be all wrong. The Jewish community tends to package and sell guilt to support Jewish education as a defense against our children marrying gentiles and the Jewish community shrinking to nothingness. This works for a few donors, but not most. Rather we should simply promote day-school education as high quality and a good place to be a student.
Jewish foundations support so many wonderful causes because they should. If Jewish organizations want a bigger piece of the pie, they should stress the positive things they will accomplish, not berate foundations for representing uncaring Jews.
The information about Jewish foundations is an opportunity to think about how best to build the Jewish community, offer great programs and send a message of hope to achieve a vision for the Jewish future.
This certainly will serve us better and encourage more of our young Jewish entrepreneurs and businesspeople to engage in Jewish grant-making than bad-mouthing the foundations that give so generously to make a better world.
Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.