How To Avoid The Jewish Fiscal Cliff


The main Capitol Hill focus these days is on how the government can avoid the so-called impending fiscal cliff. A similarly serious financial challenge lurks in the future of the Jewish community — namely, how do we better balance our books and continue to fund an engaging and vibrant Jewish society? We may not be running toward a cliff, but a long slide would leave us in the same place.

Unfortunately, the Jewish Fiscal Crisis (JFC) is more systemic and fragmented than even our government’s current dilemma and cannot be solved by fiat of raising taxes or cutting programs. Rather, the JFC will only be resolved through addressing difficult issues such as how we are organized, how we educate and motivate donors and collect money, and how we deliver services through a complex structure of separate yet (ideally) non-duplicative organizations

As a long-time participant and funder in Jewish life, I appreciate how fortunate we are in comparison to previous generations. My point here is not “Woe is us.” Rather, I hope to present ideas and generate a discussion that leads to collaboration. Our community needs to develop strategies that increase overall communal resources for worthwhile initiatives, and generate and allocate our communal resources in the most efficient manner possible.

By way of background, the Jewish community’s deteriorating financial situation is due to a number of interrelated factors and trends. These include: decreasing affiliation; increased demand for poverty services and annual subsidies (e.g. for synagogue membership and day school tuition); general shifts in funders, with some foundations spending down on the way to closing down (like Avi Chai, The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies) and next generation major funders frequently focused on non-Jewish issues; and stagnant annual campaigns for federations.

In addition, inefficiencies continue as organizations duplicate services, and an expanded reliance on “free” pricing (Birthright), http://www.pjlibrary.orgPJ Library, Chabad, etc.) has spawned a sense of entitlement among young people, who tend not to join synagogues or Jewish organizations.

To create the necessary economic foundation for the Nextgen Jewish community, we need a game-changing cooperative approach that disrupts the current economic paradigm while at the same time takes into account established organizations such as the federations.

In this regard the publishing industry serves as an instructive model of how to move forward. Publishers are investing heavily in innovation in the new world of e-books and online distribution while at the same time working to protect their core print businesses. Significant restructuring and mergers are just one visible manifestation of this dynamic process.

We should apply this separate-but-focused approach in the Jewish community. The federation system and other large incumbent organizations are our printed books and we need to ensure their continuing, valuable, bottom-line contribution. At the same time we need to explore and master innovative “e-book” approaches in a way that does not jeopardize major components of the Jewish enterprise.

We will only achieve substantive improvement through a collaborative effort leading to initiatives that improve how the market system operates. The challenge is not just to envision and implement any one option, but to achieve widespread community acceptance. With this goal in mind, we should empower a think-out-of-the-box, Simpson-Bowles style committee to brainstorm, create and help implement such game-changing initiatives.

The participants would need to include key funders and representatives of incumbent organizations with leadership by visionary participants inside the community — forward-thinking federations, philanthropic groups and resources, as well as market-savvy outsiders.

The critical ideas on the agenda for this group are not necessarily high profile, exciting projects, but rather the spinach on the table. They may not be as fun to eat, but they will give the community the basic nutrients to increase resources across the board.

Here are four initial ideas this committee should consider:

A Transparent Marketplace

Our community needs to better collect and organize critical, baseline information on the financials, best practices and strategies/missions of Jewish nonprofit organizations. Information is power and we need to make our donors smarter about their choices and allocations.

Empowered and Informed Donors

A one-size-gives-all mentality is no longer the only answer as donors become less focused on institutional fulfillment and more interested in individual giving, based on personal interests. We need a charity information platform that educates, activates and connects the Jewish community and is a trusted source that provides independent, high-quality and conveniently accessible information.

Communal Efficiency

There are many organizations working in similar areas that might benefit from a range of coordination and cooperation. More resources need to be devoted to helping organizations start joint-venture operations and merge where it makes sense.

Jewish Giving Category Campaign

We need to address how to increase the overall amount of money given to Jewish causes. This would be general campaign to generate awareness on the importance of Jewish giving and engage funders to increase their allocation to Jewish charities by addressing attitudes, the paradox of choice and informational requirements.

In the end, though, we need to keep in mind that we will not win over major sources of new money through a campaign, but rather through a thoughtful and organized approach to giving Jewishly. This will only be accomplished through the types of initiatives discussed here and other ideas that arise through these discussions.

Mark Pearlman is a business and marketing strategist. This article is an outgrowth of the author’s previous study (“Creating a Jewish GDP,” The Jewish Week, April 2008) and his recent participation in the 2012 JPPI conference, which included sessions on the ways and means of the community. For a more detailed version of this article, see For more details on the approach and ideas, please contact