Tackling 21st-Century Challenges Is Good For The Jews


When the World Economic Forum announced the top trends in the “Outlook on the Global Agenda” for 2014, based on responses from its network of world leaders, widening income disparities was No. 2. Inaction on climate change was No. 5.

Along the same lines, The Nathan Cummings Foundation announced the results of its yearlong strategic planning process. After a thorough, collaborative and deliberative process, our board decided to focus the foundation’s resources on two seemingly intractable, interconnected challenges: economic inequality and climate change.

A Jewish foundation is seeking to tackle two of the most critical challenges of the 21st century. And yet some are pondering the question: Is it good for the Jews? To us the answer is yes.

On Dec. 4, President Obama gave a powerful speech about the dangers of economic inequality to the vitality of the United States. He cited two sets of statistics that rattle us:

“Since 1979, when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8 percent. Since 1979, our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few.”

And this: “The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income — it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.”

This, combined with decreased upward mobility, threatens the American Dream. The Jewish community in the United States achieved unprecedented affluence and influence, freedom and security during the American Century. Nathan Cummings himself, his children and grandchildren, all were part of this journey. Do we not have a role to play in keeping that dream alive during the 21st? 

The future effects of climate change are increasingly the current realities of climate change. Low-lying island nations are preparing to be wiped off the map. Cities like New York are hiking up their pants, conceding the futility of keeping their ankles dry. Food and water, habitats and species, all are at risk.

In the meantime, economies that until recently had a negligible carbon footprint are clawing their way into the 21th century. This can create stark choices between our moral obligation to the world’s poor and our moral obligation to the world itself. Our board wrestled thoughtfully with these choices and concluded that Judaism has something important to say here, and that the Jewish community cannot take a back seat as two billion people, created in God’s image, struggle to gain access to the energy that we rely on everyday to power modern life.

Gary Rosenblatt, in his column, “Will Jewish Foundations Go Universal?” (Dec. 13), expresses concern at our foundation’s new focus. He argues that the Jewish community, through its philanthropic and other institutions, should be more focused on Israel’s security and sustaining Jewish peoplehood. Yes, he notes, climate change is important. But only Jews will fund day schools. He challenges us to consider our obligations to our own people first.

Since it was founded 25 years ago, the work of the Nathan Cummings Foundation has been rooted in Jewish tradition and values. This reflects the desire of its namesake and benefactor, Nathan Cummings, a Jewish immigrant who built and eventually sold the Sara Lee Corporation. It remains a priority of the Foundation’s current board, which includes members of the Cummings family.

While we will continue to fund Jewish organizations, including groups working in Israel to advance security and democracy, our purpose in doing so is not to address the alienation of Jews from Judaism. We do so because we have observed the vital role that Jews and the Jewish community have played in social change efforts historically and believe they have a central role to play addressing challenges that affect us all.

If you take the call to its extreme and focus strictly on the more parochial Jewish interests while turning away from the plight of the planet and the world’s poor, you find yourself at odds with our understanding of Jewish values. It also alienates the very Jews whose diminishing Jewish engagement troubles so many.

So if we must ask, is it good for the Jews, let us acknowledge that a livable planet and an economy of opportunity are in everyone’s interest. Jew and non-Jew alike.

Simon Greer is president and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Adam Cummings is board chair of the foundation.