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Synagogue Members Give The Most Charity

Synagogue Members Give The Most Charity

New study suggests benefits in widening the pool for charitable donations.

American Jews who are members of synagogues are more likely to give to both Jewish and non-Jewish charitable causes than non-synagogue members, but those who identify with a denomination of Judaism while not belonging to a congregation are also generous givers. And Orthodox Jews are as likely as non-Orthodox ones to give to non-Jewish causes.

Those are among the findings of a new study of charitable giving practices of American Jewry.

“Connected To Give: Synagogues & Movements,” released this week by the Los Angeles-based Jewish Jumpstart philanthropic research institute, is a combination of good news, bad news and what many might consider old news.

According to the study, which is based on the 2013 National Study of American Jewish Giving, and the National Study of American Religious Giving, more than 60 percent of “American Jews’ charitable giving … goes to Jewish organizations, whether congregations or other Jewish non-profit organizations.” This, despite a growing concern in recent years in parts of the American Jewish community that many American Jews are giving the bulk of their charitable donations to non-Jewish causes.

However, the study adds, “American Jews allocate a much smaller share of their giving to Jewish congregations and a slightly larger share to Jewish nonprofit organizations than non-Jewish Americans allocate to congregations and religiously identified nonprofit organizations.”

In other words, the typical American Jew gives less to his or her house of worship and more to another recipient affiliated with that religion than do non-Jews.

“While a sizable proportion of the American Jewish population neither identifies with a major movement nor belongs to a congregation, most giving by American Jewish households comes from synagogue members,” the report states.

The findings can serve as a guideline for how leaders of Jewish institutions — both synagogues and other organizations — should “talk to Jews about giving,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, and an expert in Jewish philanthropy.

Solomon, a member of The Jewish Week board of directors, says the Jumpstart report, seen in the context of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” shows that “we’re losing in terms of engagement.” (The Pew report found that most American Jews have a strong sense of Jewish pride but that a significant and growing minority describe themselves as having no religious affiliation.)

Appealing to Jews’ religious motivations for charitable giving may be increasingly ineffective, since a smaller number of American Jews see themselves as part of a “religious” community.

The new study indicates that leaders of Jewish organizations, on both a local and national level, should attempt to broaden Jews’ “engagement” with the wider Jewish community (beyond a specific synagogue or other organization) and make clear that giving to any charitable recipient is consistent with Jewish values.

“Jewish engagement leads to Jewish [Jews’] giving,” Solomon said. “Most American Jews don’t know that their [philanthropic] values are Jewish values.

“Make the connection,” he advised. “Make connections to things beyond the Jewish community.”

He cited American Jewish World Service, which promotes humanitarian work on an international scale, from a Jewish perspective, as a leading example of this approach.

Among other findings of the Jumpstart report, the fourth in a series, are:

♦ donations to synagogues do not decrease significantly as a member/donor ages, unlike the case with most other Jewish organizations.

♦ members of a congregation, no matter the denomination, are equally likely to give to charity.

♦ the philanthropy of Orthodox Jews is more motivated by their social relationships (the number of people who solicit donations) than simply by religious obligations. “Orthodox Jews tend to have the broadest networks, suggesting that they are solicited in the widest variety of environments, among family, at work, in social settings, and elsewhere,” the study states.

“In some respect, everything [in the report] is new,” documenting assumptions about Jews’ charitable patterns that had been accepted wisdom, according to Solomon, who served as a consultant for Jumpstart.

“No one has done this before,” said Shawn Landres, Jumpstart director of research. He and sociologist Steven M. Cohen were the report’s primary authors. “We’ve documented where those charitable dollars [given by American Jews] go. It gives us the data to go beyond anecdotal stuff,” he said in an interview.

Landres said the report emphasizes “the extent to which [charitable] giving is empowered by Jewish engagement.”

The more that a Jew is involved in some sort of organized Jewish activity, the more likely he or she is to give to a charity of any type.

He said Major Finding 3, that “identification with a Jewish religious movement is associated with higher giving rates and amount,” even among people who are not synagogue members, may encourage leaders of the various denominations, and of local congregations, to broaden their outreach.

“Their role as institutions is not simply [to strengthen] the relationship between the individual and the organization,” Landres said, “but to consider relationships between individuals. Take the synagogue outside the synagogue walls.”

Jews who have stronger relationships with other Jews are more likely to join and financially support Jewish institutions, he noted.

“We hope the findings reported here will spark conversations and creative responses,” the study’s Afterword states. “For religious movements, this report points to a different kind of opportunity: engaging those who are not members of congregations but nonetheless share movement values, culture, and commitments. Congregations and movements alike — indeed all causes — will benefit from broadening the familial, social, professional, and voluntary networks within which conversations about charitable giving takes place.”

As an example, Landres, who discussed the study at the recent biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, cites an online webinar, “Pioneers in Alternative Synagogue Models,” which UJA-Federation of New York’s Synergy program will host on Wednesday, Jan. 22.

“It demonstrates the importance of our research,” Landres said. “Synagogues are experimenting with different membership and revenue models. The implications of this work could have ramifications well beyond synagogues themselves.”

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