March 15, 1998 / 17 Adar, 5758

Has Jewish money run out?

By Neil Rubin

EVERYBODY GRIPES about the high cost of being Jewish, but what about the largesse of the Jewish heart? How much are we donating to Jewish causes these days?

Jack Wertheimer brought some surprising answers to town last week. Jews in the upper end of the middle class, he noted, have amassed a phenomenal amount of wealth. gelt More important, they're giving it away. It's not all flooding into Jewish causes, but a surprising dollar amount is, even if through untraditional sources.

Those were some of the not-so-conventional conclusions that Wertheimer, Provost of New York City's Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tossed out in his talk for the American Jewish Committee's Sol Golden Memorial Flaship Series.

"This is something I have learned not to say publicly," he said, "but American Jews are doing very well. Compared to other ethnic groups we're incredibly upwardly mobile and wealthy."

It's not the common lingo when an annual Federation campaign asks for more money to help Jews in need -- a cause that still greatly needs support. Wertheimer, who wrote a recently published analysis of American Jewish giving patterns for the latest American Jewish Yearbook, came up with these conclusions:

In fact, many of their original benefactors have stipulated that inheritors give a certain percentage to Jewish causes. Why? They don't trust their offspring to share their emotional attachment to the Jewish world. But 65 percent to 75 percent of the money donated from Jewish family foundations already is going to non-Jewish causes. "You can say that's their commitment to America in general, but on the other hand it's a hemorrhaging of dollars to Jewish community," Wertheimer said, noting that Jews of past generations gave a greater precentage of their wealth to Jewish causes than today.

How much money will pass from the hands of parents to children in by the end of the next few decades? For all Americans, that would be more than one trillion dollars. Of that astronomical sum, billions will be in Jewish coffers.

  • The dramatic story in fundraising for Israel is that it's skyrocketing upwards.

"In the coming years," Wertheimer said, "nearly twice as much money is going to Israel outside the UJA/Federation structure rather than through it." That's because large donations are going to hospitals, museums, yeshivot and organizations known as "Friends Of..." as in Friends of Hebrew University.

It's called targeted giving, and Federations are getting into the act, too. It basically means that the baby boomers aren't as interested in giving to umbrella causes, but are more comfortable in knowing where their dollars are heading.

While about $300 million now goes to Israel through the United Jewish Appeal/Federation campaigns, between $600 million and $700 million heads to overseas Jewish causes through groups associated with hospitals, yeshivot and other social organizations.

That's one mother load of falafel and hummus.

Meanwhile, this fits well with the psychological pressures that have built up at home to assist local needs. In fact, Wertheimer's research has shown that a few decades ago Federations were giving about 60 percent of their annual campaign money to overseas causes, primarily Israel. Today, that's dropped to 40 percent, a trend seen in Atlanta as well.

  • Finally, the scholar noted that American Jews, for some reason, fail to count in their giving patterns the obvious: synagogues and Jewish private schools. "We don't think of that as philanthropy," he said. But the schools have annual budgets topping more than $1 billion; the synagogues weigh in at almost $2 billion a year. A lot of it comes from membership and tuition, but donations play a huge role. That's why some synagogues, such as the Ahavath Achim Synagogue here, have recently started endowment funds.

Tack on the huge dollars money raised by national Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

In short, that's a whole lot of bucks flying out of Jewish pockets to feed the ever-evolving beast of organized Jewry.

As Wertheimer said, "I'm not prepared to say that the well is running dry because in part there's a huge amount of money out there. Even though the majority is not going to Jewish causes, there's still a great deal that can and is being tapped."

How to do that, and the struggles amongst competing organizations for the same dollars, will always be with us. Because that's the American Jewish way.

JWR contributor Neil Rubin is the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.


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2/1/98: The news according to Sid

© 1998, Neil Rubin