Lessons From The Jewish GDP


Mark Pearlman, professor Edieal Pinker and The Jewish Week deserve credit for pursuing the data that tells the financial story of the Jewish nonprofit world (“Nonprofits Still Seen Struggling Long After Recession,” Jan. 2).

While there are many challenges in the use of this data, including identifying all Jewish entities, unusual events in the year’s revenues streams, and challenges in categorization, these data did provide an opportunity for reflection and analysis. The overall picture, as previously reported, tells us that from the year just before the great recession (2006/2007) until the latest available data (2011/2012), the Jewish GDP was reduced by $1 billion. While this may not be surprising, given the results of the Pew Research Center study and other things we know about the rapidly changing American Jewish community, there are many lessons that can be learned from this data. I would have us look at two fields that have dramatically different results.

Approximately 100 years ago there was an attempt at creating an American kehillah, or community, along the lines of mandatory communities well known to European Jewry. The very nature of the American dream and its history prevented that from happening, but a uniquely American version of the kehillah emerged. The federation system became one of the most highly successful, profoundly impactful group of organizations in the history of philanthropy. Combining American philanthropic and volunteer mores with timeless Jewish values organized through a hierarchical structure of community, industry and other affinity groups, federations raised tremendous amounts of money for local and global Jewish needs. To replicate the inflation-adjusted best year, 1948, UJA-Federation of New York’s annual campaign would need to call on one of every two Jewish households in order to raise $1 billion a year. Actual results are but 15 percent of that historical high. However, in this century, despite our aspirations for community, the fact is that individual, custom-made approaches in so much of life tend to have become the norm. We have given up broadcasting for narrow casting. Department stores have become boutiques. Our mobile playlists have replaced radio.

This is evidenced in the results of the GDP with regard to the 157 federations. Of those, only 37 have had increases from 2006-7 to 2011-12. Fifteen of them were increases of more than 20 percent reflecting real-dollar increases. At the same time 120 had decreases; 96 of which had had decreases in excess of 20 percent. There are two theorems with regard to those federations that have seen increases. The first is reflected in the only large city that has had an increase: Boston. The Boston federation has de-emphasized its annual campaign as it has focused far more on becoming a philanthropic partner of Jews in the Boston area; it has worked closely with them to identify mutual priorities, whereas in the traditional annual campaign people give to a community pot, distributed by the federation allocations mechanism. The other major area of growth has been in the South and the Sunbelt, especially in smaller Jewish communities where population growth is often occurring or where the Jewish community takes on a more central role in the life of its residents.

It is worth contrasting this experience to the field of camping. Two inspired philanthropists created the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) in the belief that Jewish camping had the potential to transform young Jews. As with Birthright Israel, the FJC donors believed a transformative immersion experience has the capacity to change the direction of one’s life and provide a sense of Jewish identity, meaning and community. Of the 33 Jewish nonprofit camps in the GDP study, 24 have had increases from the 2006-7 revenue reports, 18 of which had increases of more than 20 percent. Quite a few of these were significantly more than 20 percent — as much as 80 percent, and in one case 107 percent. Only 9 have had reductions in revenues, none of which were more than 20 percent.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp has re-energized this field. Its lay and professional leaders developed strategies for today’s needs, and its range of services includes the professionalization of camps, modernization of the capital infrastructure, and providing financial incentives for parents to select a Jewish camp. There are clear goals and objectives that are continuously monitored and measured. It is a wonderful story of improving Jewish life in the 21st century.

These contrasts tell us that inspired leadership that is focused and aligned can change the course of Jewish life in North America. It is the community’s challenge to identify those strategies that are transformative and relevant to the lifestyle of 21st-century American Jewish life, where every Jew is a Jew by choice, where compelling programs can attract and transform, and where our dreams can exceed our memories.

Jeffrey Solomon is president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a member of The Jewish Week board of directors.