When Jewish communal leaders learn that yet another Jew has made a multimillion dollar donation to a cultural institution like Lincoln Center or a large university, the response has long been, “another one has been lost to the Jews.”
But these days, more than ever, Jewish philanthropists can be found supporting both Jewish and secular causes – it’s no longer either/or. Edward Merrin, a New York-based art dealer turned philanthropist, is a case in point. Merrin, 81, a member of the Jewish Funders Network, is a longtime supporter of the Joint Distribution Committee (to the tune of approximately $1 million a year) and serves as trustee of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged. He recently committed $30 million to Tufts University, in honor of his 60th reunion. In an interview with The Jewish Week, Merrin spoke about how tikkun olam motivates his and his wife’s philanthropic pursuits and why he’s still searching for a Jewish charity to give a sizable gift to.
Q: You just announced a $30 million gift to Tufts. This is on top of some $9 million in past gifts that you have made to the university. How do you and your wife balance your giving to Jewish and secular causes?
A: All of our giving is based on the concept of tikkun olam [improving the world]. The money will support financial aid and take kids who could not afford to go to university and give them a chance to make a difference. Until this big gift, most of our gifts were in the Jewish world. We have an equal amount of money set aside to give to Jewish charity; we just haven’t found the thing I want.
So your giving to a secular cause has not impinged on the amount of money you plan to set aside to Jewish charities?
We have certainly put aside that amount for Jewish causes, at the minimum. But there are an awful lot of Jewish organizations that don’t think right. The people that I know, unless you’re a Chabadnik, that give real money, give to both [secular and Jewish causes]. Those who have made money in New York still have a responsibility to give something back to the U.S.
You’re a longtime supporter of the JDC.
For 15 years I’ve been involved, and I’ve been fighting with them for 14. They do spectacular work, but like most organizations today, they have to change. My favorite JDC story involves a sickly Jewish woman living in a remote village, 500 miles from Siberia. The JDC visits her every month and gives her medicine. What other organization will find a single woman in need and take the time and effort to save one person? My argument with the JDC revolves around method — such as how to raise funds — and not with purpose.
Do your children model your giving patterns?
My kids [Merrin has three sons and a daughter] are very Jewish-oriented. Most of their money goes to Jewish charities, though I have never told them that they should give to X, Y or Z. My son, Seth [CEO of Liquidnet Holdings], and his wife, Anne, started a village in Rwanda called Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, which has a chance at really changing the world. The concept is based on the Israeli kibbutz. The project was originally funded through the JDC. My son, Sam, is involved with the Trey Whitfield School in Brooklyn. All of the boys wear ties and little jackets and the girls wear uniforms. Ninety percent go to college. Most of the family gives to that.