On the surface the major findings of the just-released National Study of American Jewish Giving are encouraging, indicating that Jews have one of the highest levels of charity of any group in America, contributing generously to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes.
In fact, Jews are more likely to support non-Jewish causes than Jewish ones, a cause for concern to those who worry about the future of the Jewish communal system.
“Seventy-six percent of American Jews report that they made a charitable contribution in 2012; median annual giving was $1,200,” according to the report, sponsored by Connected to Give, a collaborative project of 18 Jewish foundations – family, independent and community – and Jewish federations working in partnership with Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based philanthropic research and design lab.
By comparison, the study says that 63 percent of non-Jews contributed charitably last year and the median annual giving was $600.
The study found that “engagement with Jewish community is a paramount driver of Jewish charitable giving and even drives giving to non-Jewish organizations.” The key influence for American Jews when it comes to giving is their “connection to and engagement with the Jewish community,” based on who you marry, who your friends are and whether you are involved with a synagogue or Jewish organization.
Those factors far outweigh income and age levels, though the higher those are the more the giving increases.
The conclusion about Jewish engagement as paramount “may seem obvious,” said Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist and member of the research team, “but the power of the finding was so strong it counters alternate theories about why Jews give or don’t give, such as changing attitudes, social media or [offering] the wrong product.
“This study says ‘no, if you want to have Jews give, have them marry Jews, go to synagogue, volunteer for Jewish organizations, etc.”
The report concludes that “American Jewish charitable activity is impressive and strong.” But there are patterns and motivations that present a serious challenge for the organized Jewish community going forward, chiefly the finding that younger Jews are far less likely to contribute to Jewish federations – 28 percent of Jews under 40, compared to 35 percent of 40-64 year olds and 45 percent of those over 64.
“Jews today think less collectively and more personally,” explained Cohen, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.
Concepts like “the Jewish community” and “Jewish peoplehood” do not resonate with them as it does for their elders, he said, noting that “the rhetoric of discourse has shifted to the individual.”
That is borne out in the report’s findings on motivation for giving. It’s far less about “a commitment to being Jewish” or “a belief that my giving will help improve Jewish life and the Jewish community” and far more about “feeling that those who have more should help those with less” and “a belief that my charitable giving will help make the world a better place.”
Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and chair of the steering committee of Connected to Giving, says the study underscores a strong disconnect between those active in Jewish communal life and the Jewish masses, who believe the organized Jewish community is doing well and doesn’t need their financial support.
“We need to think more strategically and listen to the voices who are not the insiders we hear every day,” asserted Solomon, a member of The Jewish Week board of directors. “Our culture of insularity is insidious.”
He also noted that many Jews are motivated by Jewish values to give but don’t realize it, attributing their reasons instead to family values.
The findings suggest that as a result of “boring synagogues and Hebrew schools that never taught Hebrew, the chickens are coming home to roost,” he said, adding: “Unless we make progress and create compelling community,” future generations of American Jews won’t be supporting parochial Jewish institutions.
What’s needed, Solomon said, is proving to young people that the Western values they hold dear are essentially rooted in ancient Jewish values.
The study found that “overall, Jews are more likely to support non-Jewish organizations than Jewish ones; and this difference is particularly striking for basic needs, health, arts and environmental causes.” It noted that “21 percent of Jewish donors gave only to non-Jewish organizations; 4 percent gave only to Jewish causes.”
(It should be noted that the study did not include Orthodox Jews because “their substantially higher degree of religious engagement, compared to non-Orthodox Jews, skews data,” a technical way of saying that Orthodox Jews are far more engaged in charitable giving.)
Today, the study shows, younger people prefer giving to Jewish organizations that serve non-Jewish people and causes, and they have trouble finding Jewish charities that are important to them.
The report is sure to renew the discussion of whether or not Jews should take pride in their universal giving trends or be giving more narrowly to support Jewish causes. Philanthropist Michael Steinhart, for example, has long been outspoken in criticizing fellow wealthy Jews for supporting symphonies and museums rather than Jewish institutions.
On the other extreme, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, insists that “the act of giving itself is a Jewish act.” Writing on the website eJewishphilanthropy.com, she called for “celebrating Jewish giving and not make distinctions between those giving to Jewish causes and non-Jewish causes.”
Some Jewish leaders may feel Rabbi Sirbu’s attitude is more helpful conceptually than practically, but there is widespread sense among the sponsors of the study that Jewish organizations would be wise to take note of current trends.
Of major importance is that funders will be looking more than ever to support Jewish groups that engage donors and make a significant impact, and that organizations serving non-Jews as well as Jews are preferred by young donors.
“People don’t care how much you raise but what you do with it,” Solomon pointed out.
Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, agreed that organizations need to show relevance.
“We’ve known for a long time that calls to donate for Jewish continuity and to strengthen the Jewish community fall on deaf ears,” and that connectedness is a crucial indicator of giving trends.
He said the Schusterman Foundation has been focusing for years on the young adult population, “trying to encourage a sense of connection,” and that the study “confirms what we’re doing.
“You have to go where young people are and speak to them on their level.”
The notion that the Jewish community can “wait them out,” assuming young people who ceased their involvement with bar or bat mitzvah will seek out synagogues or Jewish organizations as new parents, no longer applies.
He and other supporters of the study said the message is clear, especially for federations and other collective Jewish communal organizations whose numbers are decreasing.
As Jeffrey Solomon observed, “if you claim you represent the community you have to show” that you really do.
The study was based on a national survey of nearly 3,000 American Jews and a national survey of close to 1,200 non-Jews, as well as a dozen focus groups.
Three more reports from the study will be released this year, dealing with planned giving, multireligious key findings, and congregational giving.