With government funding to Jewish organizations being slashed and Jewish federation campaigns running either flat or down, a new study has discovered that billions of dollars from the country’s biggest Jewish philanthropists are going to universities, health and the arts. And the Jewish community wants to learn why.
The study, by the Institute for Jewish & Communal Research, found that only 6 percent of the $5.3 billion in mega-gifts Jews donated to individual institutions between 1995 and 2000 went to Jewish institutions. A mega-gift is $10 million or more.
"Something is wrong," said Gary Tobin, lead author of the study and president of the institute. "This study points to a very serious problem in Jewish philanthropy and in the Jewish philanthropic structure."
Tobin said that if the amount of Jewish money that now goes to universities was redirected to Jewish institutions, "it could change the face of Jewish life." He said there is a particular need for such money to provide for the elderly, children and Israel’s infrastructure. And he said the institute in the next year would be interviewing Jewish donors to learn the reasons for their funding decisions.
The study revealed also that Jews are generous givers to society in general: and well beyond their numbers.
"To me the headline is that Jews are giving about 10 times their percentage of the population," said Jeffrey Solomon, a co-author of the study and executive director of the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Philanthropies. "That is an extraordinary statement about the generosity of Jews to American institutions."
The survey found that 188 of the 865 mega-gifts, 22 percent, came from Jews, who the study said account for 2.5 percent of the American population. It found also that only 18 gifts totaling $318 million of the $5.3 billion mega-donations from Jews went to Jewish organizations or institutions.
The study, based upon tax disclosure statements and published studies of 200 Jewish philanthropists, found that Jewish philanthropists are not averse to giving to Jewish causes, only that the amounts they give are smaller than their non-Jewish contributions.
"They are not ignorant of the Jewish communal structure," Tobin said of the philanthropists surveyed. He noted that many of them made donations to Jewish institutions.
"He may have given $40 million to the symphony and $100,000 to a Jewish institution," he said.
David Altshuler, president of the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy, said the Jewish community "would do well to see the glass not only as half empty but also as half full because it shows both the enormous capacity of Jewish philanthropists and their enormous generosity."
He said if the study’s authors are trying to demonstrate that Jewish charities should be "more creative or productive or grander in their aspirations and in their communication with funders, more power to them. But it’s not a bad thing that Jews give to secular charities. It’s a good thing. It’s good for the world and it’s good for the Jews."
Altshuler noted that by their contributions to secular charities, these Jews are "enhancing the communities in which they live or the world in general."
"The American Jewish community has always regarded participation in the larger world as part and parcel of our Jewish responsibilities. We should be very encouraged by the enormous potential of Jewish philanthropists and see it as an opportunity and not as a tragedy."
Altshuler added that Jewish federations each year raise about $2 billion from American Jews and that American Jews also contribute to "hundreds of other Jewish charities in this country and overseas."
Tobin said he realizes that Jews contribute billions of dollars to Jewish causes, but he asked: ‘Why don’t the largest gifts go to the Jewish community?’
Alex Karp, chief executive officer of the Jewish Philanthropy Partnership and a co-author of the study, stressed that the survey was undertaken to simply learn where the most generous Jews give their money.
"It is not inherently negative," he said.
But he said he hoped the study would "help people understand better ways to work with major donors, Jews and non-Jews, and help Jewish professionals in attracting more support."
Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, suggested one reason the mega-gifts go to other than the Jewish community: the community doesn’t always ask.
"Universities and museums have always solicited big gifts and had capital campaigns that needed the mega-gift," she said.
But in general, Palmer said, religious institutions count on "a lot of people making relatively small gifts. … They get more donations than social service organizations, but they usually don’t get the big dollars. And a lot has to do with what the charities have asked for vs. the donor’s mind-set. Donors respond to what they are asked for."
Although the authors of the study did not reveal the Jews included in their survey, a check of the 60 largest Jewish donors compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Internet magazine Slate.com included Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill and his wife, Joan; the late publishing magnate Walter Annenberg; David Geffen of the entertainment industry; and Irwin and Joan Jacobs of the telecommunications industry.
William Helmreich, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, said Jewish gift giving is a "measure of our integration into the larger society."
"People in the Jewish community care about being something in the Jewish community, but even more so in the general community," he said. "This is nothing new and reflects the perennial desire of Jews to be accepted in the larger society. … Many Jews consider themselves to be Americans first and Jews second: sometimes a distant second."
Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, pointed out that the "involvement of Jews in American society has penetrated so much that it is not surprising that the philanthropy of Jews to non-Jewish causes far outweighs their contribution to Jewish causes. [Society] has been so receptive to Jews that they feel perfectly at home in the leading philanthropic venues in America generally."
But Bayme observed that within the last 10 years there have been mega-philanthropists who have made the Jewish community their primary beneficiary of their contributions.
"The very fact that you are now talking of Jewish concerns and Jewish issues is a fundamental change," Bayme said. "A small but perceptible change is taking place. … It may not be reflected quantitatively, but the change is real and ultimately for the good of the Jewish people."