Making A Move At Cummings


Several weeks ago the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a stalwart in the Jewish philanthropic community for 25 years, announced that its new strategic plan calls for focusing on two specific areas: inequality and climate change.

While assuring that one of its four “approaches” going forward will be Religious Traditions and Contemplative Practices, in the hope that meditation and reflection can help reduce inequality and shape a more moral society, the foundation will no longer include Jewish Life and Values as one of its four core programs.

Simon Greer, president and CEO of the foundation, explained that the new strategic process was the result of a year of careful, thoughtful deliberation among the trustees seeking to make a significant impact over the next decade. The overall goal, he said, was “to close the gap between America’s promise and practice” in creating a more equitable society. And while the trustees reaffirmed that the foundation is “rooted in the Jewish tradition,” there is more of a centralized focus now to the grant making, which comes to about $20 million a year, he said.

In the past, about 20 percent of those funds were designated to Jewish groups and causes. Among the recent grantees in the area of Jewish social service projects here and in Israel were Repair the World, Hazon, the Jewish Funders Network, American Jewish World Service, the New Israel Fund, Jewish Funds for Justice and the J Street Education Fund.

In 2014, the foundation will wipe the slate clean, Greer said, and according to its statement, offer “transitional support to long-time partners as their support … comes to an end.”

Jewish groups may still qualify going forward, he added, but only if their work fits into the new guidelines.

To be clear, the Cummings Foundation has done creative, compassionate and important work over the years promoting a progressive agenda in both the Jewish and wider communities. Its decision to narrow and deepen its focus in the areas of inequality and climate change, which it sees as “the challenge of the 21st century,” is not only its prerogative but reflects a deeply-held commitment to repair the world, physically and ethically.

Indeed, Greer, who prior to this post was head of Jewish Funds for Justice, says he has always defined Jewish social justice as “doing good social justice from a deeply Jewish point of view.”

Still, the news is a sharp reminder that the agenda of the Jewish community is changing, and that we have become overly dependent on the generosity of private foundations whose objectives are not always reflective of our most pressing needs.

Of course defining “our” needs is a subjective exercise, and I realize my perception of Jewish priorities may be more parochial than those of a younger generation increasingly broad in its outlook. (Greer noted that the Cummings board of trustees, once made up of Cummings family members who are Jewish, is now about one-third non-Jewish, reflecting assimilation patterns in the Jewish community.)

While I see climate change as a major issue for the international community, I would place Israel’s security (in light of the existential threat of a nuclear Iran) and Jewish peoplehood (strengthening our numbers, and values, in the face of polls showing a steep decline in Jewish identity) as higher on the scale of immediate communal priorities.

I’m reminded of a scene on the Upper West Side several years ago that for me captured the divide over communal precedence. I walked past a liberal synagogue with a banner that said “Save Darfur”; a few steps down the block was an Orthodox synagogue with a banner saying, in effect, “Save Shalit.”

Not an either-or situation, of course, but instead, two important causes; both should have prompted a response from every caring person. But in practical terms, support for the then-missing and kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, seemed confined to supporters of Israel, placing more responsibility on them to act.

Just last week I moderated a panel on the results and implications of the Pew Research Center report on Jewish identity, during which two rabbinic panelists — one Conservative and one Reform — emphasized the need for greater support for the synagogue as a vital institution. But when a college student in the audience questioned the value and importance of Jews remaining a distinct and separate community in an age of individualism, the rabbis confined their responses to what being Jewish means to them. I found their remarks quite moving, but I’m not sure the college student did, or if others like him would want a broader rationale.

Last week I also learned of a new focus-group study that found young, unaffiliated Jews feeling looked down upon by the organized Jewish community for their lack of participation in Jewish life. The unaffiliateds were resentful of being perceived as, perhaps, “less Jewish.” Also, while they said the survival and continuity of American Jewry was important to them, they did not necessarily feel personally responsible to marry and raise Jews themselves.

So there appears to be a disconnect, at least for some, between a communal goal and a personal commitment.

Such news heightens the ongoing inreach vs. outreach debate in our community — that is, whether it is more productive to seek to attract the unaffiliated and intermarried in hopes of engaging them, or focusing instead on making Jewish life more accessible for those already involved, subsidizing day school tuitions, say, or overnight camps.

Again, I don’t see this as an either-or proposition. But while advocates of outreach assert that more funding will help increase the number of children of intermarriage raised and educated as Jews, my idea of triage is to first strengthen the core. (Just like we’re told, in case of emergency on flights, to first give oxygen to adults who can then aid their children.)

Looking ahead, I think we’ll be seeing a number of family foundations in the community focusing on more universal and less exclusively Jewish projects, like Cummings will do, indicative of the interests of younger trustees and board members. And unless Jewish federations make a dramatic comeback, their influence in championing Jewish peoplehood and collective giving will continue to wane. All at a time when studies show the need for deeper, engaging and meaningful Judaism if we are to remain connected as a community and people in this country.

The choices are ours. We’ve never been great in number, but our passion can make all the difference — if we care enough. 

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at