I know we’ve discussed this before in some of our Jewish education posts. The Forward patiently counted and reports that “Jews constituted about 24% of last year’s Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans.” While this is certainly an impressive number considering that Jews represent only 2.5% of the population of America, the Forward went on to detail that of The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of 60 largest donations of 2006, 21 were made by Jews – 35% of the total contributions. After Warren Buffet’s humungous donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the 3 next largest gifts were made by Jewish donors. Two of those went to foundations that according to The Forward give little to Jewish causes while the third, a $500 million gift from the estate of the recently deceased Jim Joseph exclusively targets Jewish education.
However, for the most part, many of these mega-contributions did not go to Jewish causes:
Among the 60 donors on The Chronicle’s list, four gave sizable gifts to explicitly Jewish causes. The largest was the Joseph Foundation’s $500 million gift (see related story). Also groundbreaking was the $100 million commitment to Yeshiva University by Ronald Stanton, a New York fertilizer executive. The Jacobses, a San Diego couple, made a $30 million gift to Technion University in Israel, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson sent $25 million to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel.
While the giving is fluid and shouldn’t be measured from year to year, the premise of the article that many of the mega-donations go to causes that have little or nothing to do with the Jewish community, is accurate. Anybody tracking most US cities where there are some extremely well-to-do Jewish individuals must be noticing that while they offer support to the Jewish community, particularly on a local basis, often there is a great deal more support given to organizations that have little or nothing to do with Judaism.
This isn’t a tragedy and it’s also not a terrible thing. After all, we probably all do this to some degree in our actions and in our charitable endeavors. We are members of our cities and communities and not only the Jewish community.
This may be happening, in part, because there aren’t as many causes within our community that require the big dollars (or that give the kind of cache that a nice contribution to, say, a prominent civic institution might involve) or that are set up to ask for the big dollars.
If it isn’t clear to everybody out there yet, there is one key Jewish issue that stands above the rest and it is education. If there is one area that can use significant funding at the mega-donor level, it’s Jewish education. And no, I’m not speaking about the 80% of Jewish Day Schools affiliated with the Orthodox movement. Yes, they can use the assistance and should benefit from it. However, there is a large Jewish population that isn’t Orthodox but that would be happy to send their children to Jewish schools if they could afford to do so and if the quality of the education was comparable to the other fine local institutions where they may be able to send their children.
There are numerous issues that need to be handled in such a project, one of them being the issue of diversity within the Jewish community. Smart, committed people will find those solutions. There is a need, a desperate need, for such a mega education project to be launched. It has to stand above the local schools and provide substantial aid and guidance without overt control. It must be able to draw in funds from existing benefactors to Jewish schools without having them balk at losing the type of control they wield now over their recipient schools and without having them feel that they are supporting “competition” by helping to establish other schools. Benefactors who have not contributed to education in large measure before should also be drawn in, and creating a mega project for education may be precisely the way to do so – it’s should be established as an alternative to giving the money to a hospital or a some university building.
All across the US and Canada, there is a patchwork of Jewish schools typically funded by parents, local federations and local wealthy individuals or families that have the resources. It doesn’t take much to realize the potential savings and power of establishing an overarching body to support existing schools and especially to identify the need for new ones. The possibilities with respect to one central body allocating resources are extensive, and would enable some communities to lay down an infrastructure of Jewish day schools that will have wide appeal.
The challenges facing many families who wish to offer a Jewish education to their children are immense. Personally, I can point to a number of families just in our circle who have given up and now send their children to public schools. These are committed, involved Jewish parents and they cannot make it happen for their children. And no, they’re not poor. In fact, their middle and upper middle class status is what makes the education prohibitive because they don’t qualify for discounts. Imagine, then, how many less committed parents aren’t even considering the possibility.
Looking at the statistics, 24% of the Forbes 400 would be almost 100 Jewish individuals or families who could assist. That doesn’t include thousands of other Jewish families that may not rank that high in the income scale but have done well enough nonetheless. They are giving to a variety of causes already, but it is time to convince them that this particular issue is of great importance and requires their attention no less than that new hospital lobby. It is time to create an agency that will be able to request the funds, manage the funds and then provide programs across the country to support high quality Jewish education that will be realistically and compellingly available to a large proportion of Jewish families.