2017-06-07 / Voice at the Shore

Are we on our way to becoming a shtetl?

Executive Director Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties

The previous two generations of American Jews had a much more global perspective on Jewish charitable giving than the current generation of American Jews. Not only did they give in far greater numbers, they also made much larger gifts to Jewish organizations, like Jewish Federation, whose primary focus was the welfare of Jews outside of this country.

Clearly, American Jews of the post-World War II era were very concerned with the security and welfare of Israel, and with the welfare of Jews in other parts of the world. But what about Jews of the post- Baby Boom generations? Why do they seem much less concerned about these things— and what does concern them enough to prompt them to make donations?

The generational disparity in support for Jewish organizations is paradoxical when one considers that today’s generation is the most highly educated, politically and socially secure, and affluent generation in the history of American Jewry. Why is it that Israel and world Jewry matter less today when it comes to the philanthropic decision-making of American Jews?

According to Jeffrey Solomon, CEO of Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, one reason for this is that American hospitals, museums, universities, and a host of other secular or non-Jewish charities have discovered Jews. More Jews are giving far larger gifts to these organizations than ever before, and are often their largest donors. Forty percent of the approximately $250 billion donated to charities in the United States each year is donated by Jews. Of this, only a little more than ten percent of it—is contributed to Jewish charities.

This, according to Solomon, is part of a much larger trend, one he calls the “reshtetlization” of American Jewish communities. As the number of Jewish donors and gifts to Jewish organizations has dwindled, there has been a corresponding increase in the financial needs of our American Jewish communities. With fewer donors and smaller gifts, Jewish organizations, often pressed by donors and boards, have shifted their funding priorities to their local communities.

This shift to an inward focus, and fewer donors, together with increased competition from non- Jewish charities for Jewish dollars, is changing the landscape of Jewish philanthropy and organizations. The largest gifts made by wealthy Jews now often go to local colleges or hospitals. Far more Jewish donors—especially the young, who would have made small and midsize gifts to the annual campaigns of Jewish organizations a generation ago—are not giving at all.

Is this trend reversible? Experts believe so, if Jewish organizations redefine what they do by successfully creating personal connections to giving beyond the local community. Solomon points to Birthright as one example. With more than 600,000 Birthright participants to have visited Israel since the program began 17 years ago, Jews in their thirties (the Birthright generation) are more connected to Israel and contribute financially to Israel programs far more than do Jews in their forties who came of age pre-Birthright.

If we are to avoid becoming an American shtetl, then we have to look within ourselves – and beyond our local community – and, as organizations and as donors, truly be our brothers’ keeper, wherever our brothers live. 

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