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.

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  • Excellent comments. I think that the Jewish donors do realize the importance of working for the greater good of the entire community, but your comments about needing something different for education are right on. Thank you for your thoughts. I would certainly love to be involved in creating a better system for Jewish education. I don’t see why we can’t—the students who transfer in to the public high school where I teach are usually top notch if they come from one of the private religious schools in the area; I don’t see why Jewish schools could not create the same caliber of students with competitive secular and religious studies that would allow graduates to achieve in the workforce or in future college endeavors. Sigh.

  • “…often there is a great deal more support given to organizations that have little or nothing to do with Judaism.”

    True, but one could argue that in cases in which the causes are public health and social justice, it really is Jewish giving, because the donors are motivated by their Jewish ethics, sensibilities and overarching vision, however attenuated their connections to the organized community might or might not be. For all we know, a philanthropist might consider a gift to a cancer research center to be a greater fulfillment of his or her Jewish communal commitments than is a gift to Yad Vashem.

  • EV, I make that point in the post and I do not dispute it at all. In fact, I am grateful for any and every dollar donated to the Jewish community by these individuals – in my town everything from the JCC to cultural and educational events that exist in the Jewish community are due to the largesse of individuals and federations such as those mentioned above. That they give to other causes is expected and certainly not begrudged at all.

    What I am saying is that the Jewish community doesn’t seem to be set up to receive these mega-donations and is therefore less likely to receive them. A school, for example, doesn’t need $100 million dollars and isn’t going to get it because these donors are sophisticated and are looking to get as much bang for the buck as they can. The Federations can theoretically accept these gifts, but the donors know the money will be watered down before getting to its intended target.

    One area where the Jewish community could attempt to establish a mechanism for this type of mega-gift is education. The need is there, the opportunity is limitless and the money would indeed be well spent and effectively used. If I recall, a few years ago, Michael Steinhardt called for a $100 million education fund but didn’t get far with it. My guess is that the fund needs to be built by professionals, not a mega-donor, so that the issue isn’t one of competitiveness, for example. Besides, I truthfully think $100 million is far too low a number. Ten or twenty times that amount. The Jim Joseph Foundation, created after his death with $500 million, is a great start. I don’t think they quite know where they are headed, but just think how many new schools they could seed and fund – including heavy subsidization of the students – in a given year just with the interest and without touching the principal.

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