A Philanthropist Crunches The Numbers


Some philanthropists focus on Jewish continuity. Others devote themselves to promoting Jewish educational opportunities. Mandell (Bill) Berman, a Jewish philanthropist based in suburban Detroit, gives generously to both of the aforementioned causes. But what makes him unique among Jewish philanthropists is his love of data, particularly Jewish data.

“I’m the only Jewish philanthropist who has a real interest in Jewish data, and the storage, dissemination and preservation of that data,” Berman told The Jewish Week in a recent phone interview. More than 20 percent of Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation’s budget is allocated to Jewish research, including the funding of Jewish educational research at the Jewish Education Service of North America and The Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute’s Center for Research on Disabilities and Employment of Special Populations.

While serving from 1987 through 1990 as president of the Council of Jewish Federations, the predecessor of the UJC (now known as The Jewish Federations of North America), Berman helped to fund the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (he later funded the 2000-2001 survey, as well).
And in 1987, he founded the Mandell L. Berman Institute North American Jewish Data Bank, now housed at the University of Connecticut. The data bank houses the Jewish population studies as well as approximately 200 local Jewish community studies.

“I’m particularly interested in the mining of data,” says Berman, a builder and developer who is a Harvard Business School graduate. “How do you make policy for a community if you don’t know what’s happening?”

At 92, Berman is still actively supporting the use of data to inform Jewish policy decisions. Earlier this month, he launched The Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner. Bjpa.org, the online portal of The Berman Jewish Policy Archive, provides free access to a growing online library of more than 4,000 policy-relevant publications from leading Jewish journals and organizations. It aims “to stimulate high level policy debate and discussion” and “to be the central meeting point for everyone interested in Jewish communal policy,” according to its Web site.

“Dad always used to say, ‘You need quantitative and qualitative data,’” says Bill’s daughter, Ann Berman, who took over the family foundation last year. “I think what he meant by that is that you need to get the raw data, but not everybody can use the raw data. They want to see the printed word.” The BJPA, with its thousands of reports, will complement The Jewish Data Bank, which is a repository for raw data.
The archive spans from the early 20th century through the present day and is funded two-thirds by the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation, with the remaining third funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation. “Since the days of Abraham and Sarah, being Jewish has been, in part, about discourse that is meaningful and effective,” says Steven M. Cohen, the director of BJPA. “Unfortunately, until recently, we have had no way of preserving and making readily accessible the growing literature that has enlightened Jewish policy-making in North America, particularly over the last three decades.”

The Jewish policy archive is “a treasure trove at your fingertips,” says Ann Berman, who is on the board of BJPA. “It might take you longer to find these articles if you searched for them on Google. And even then, you might not even be able to access it.”

In placing historical and contemporary resources together in one database, “we can learn how our thinking has evolved on certain issues — and where it hasn’t,” says Mordecai Walfish, BJPA’s content manager. “This could be very instructive — for researchers, online and print journalists and Jewish communal professionals of all ages.” Walfish shared some fun tidbits about the archive, including its raciest title: “The Future of Foreskins” by Daniel S. Brenner. BJPA’s oldest publication? “Report Concerning Suffering Jews in San Francisco Earthquake and Fire” written by Nathan Bijur and published in January 1907.

“My dad is aware that everybody else goes to [fund] the sexy stuff, like Birthright or sending kids to camp,” says Ann Berman, who is on the board of BJPA. “He believes in all that, but nobody else is doing this.”
To train the next generation of Jewish sociologists, Berman funds the Mandell Berman Fellowship Program, which supports two to three doctoral students working with Len Saxe at Brandeis University in the social scientific study of the contemporary American Jewish community.

Berman is still involved in funding studies, too. At the recent Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Washington, D.C., the latest study he funded, entitled “Moving: The impact of Geographic Mobility on the Jewish Community,” was released. According to the study, when Jews move from one city to another, their giving to Jewish causes goes down, with the Jewish federation system taking the biggest hit. Ritual observance, such as attending synagogue, connecting with Israel, or raising children to be Jewish, are affected much less, if at all.

The data is valuable because the Jewish community has historically been a very mobile one. The study — a joint project of The Jewish Federations of North America, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and the North American Jewish Data Bank — found that one in six residents of the local communities in the study moved to their current community within the past four years.

The issue of Jewish movement is somewhat a personal one to Berman. He lives in Detroit, where the Jewish population has dwindled to approximately 65,000, according to Berman’s estimates. “We’re losing people at a startling rate,” he says. “Where are they going? What’s happening to the communities they leave behind?”

To address the not-so-pleasant effects of Jewish mobility, The Jewish Federations of North America launched its New Moves program this past spring, the first large-scale donor information-sharing effort.
“Since federations maintain their own databases of donors, New Moves consolidated data on donors who moved from one area to another, and began sharing that information with the affected federations,” says Adam Smolyar, senior vice-president, strategic marketing and communications.

So far, 69 federations have participated, and more than 65,000 people have moved to 148 federation territories. “Many federations have begun reaching out to these constituents as a result,” Smolyar says.
The New Moves project also provided federations with information such as birthdates and e-mail addresses, to help federations tailor their outreach more efficiently, Smolyar added. The goal is to get all federations involved eventually.

“My Dad believes that if we don’t know what was really happening statistically, we can’t plan for it and we’d be doomed to repeat the same mistakes,” says Ann Berman.