It is useful to differentiate North American Jews and the North American Jewish community. The economic status and health of North American Jews continues to be exceedingly strong. While poverty persists in parts of the Jewish community – particularly among first and second-generation immigrant groups, the elderly, and the ultra-religious (Haredi) community – North American Jews continue to be among the most highly educated and financially resourced ethnic and religious group on the continent.9
Looking forward, the challenges facing all Americans will affect the next generation of American Jews. The complex issues advanced industrial societies face may well make it difficult for today’s middle and upper middle-class Jewish youth to easily replicate the economic status of their parents. Many have observed that this is the first generation of Americans that will struggle to retain the socioeconomic status in which they were raised. One can assume that the factors challenging so-called millennials – globalization and its counter-reaction; declining opportunities for high-income employment – will also present significant challenges for the next generation of North American Jews. That said, North American Jews continue to hold significant positions of leadership in a broad array of high-income fields including financial services, real estate, media/entertainment, and technology. Large segments of North American Jews continue to enjoy economic and social achievement unrealized to such an extent by any prior generation of Jews.
If North American Jews remain comparatively healthy in material terms, the health of the North American Jewish Community is more complex. For this discussion, the North American Jewish community consists of the complex web of local and national organizations which provide the institutional framework for Jewish communal life. On the local level this includes organizations such as synagogues and yeshivot, Jewish day schools, Jewish community centers (JCCs); campus Hillels, and social service agencies that care for the poor, seniors, and others in need.10 It is in these institutions where Jews most actively experience and participate in Jewish communal life by becoming members, clients and or/users.
There also exist the national Jewish organizations: umbrella organizations for affinity groups of local institutions cited above – denominational organizations of synagogues, national coordinating or servicing bodies of JCCs, Hillels, Jewish day school organizations, social service agencies and the like. In addition, at the national level there are also significant advocacy organizations – defense agencies that lobby or engage in advocacy on behalf of North American Jewish communities, “Jewish needs,” the State of Israel, and far more. The organizational structure of the North American Jewish community remains exceedingly impressive. Leaders of other ethnic and religious groups continue to look with envy and awe toward the immense structure and influence of the “organized Jewish community” and ponder how it was created and how they might emulate it.
The North American Jewish community is also confronting problems associated with accelerated change. With new forms of communication and technology, the positon of virtually every national agency has been eroded as local institutions can increasingly easily and directly access expertise and resources. Many local institutions resist paying dues that national bodies have long depended upon for core financial support. The national bodies of the religious denominations are especially challenged. As are others: during the past decade, two longstanding national bodies–the National Foundation of Jewish Culture (NFJC) and the Jewish Education Society of North America (JESNA) have both gone out of business, unable to sustain their work financially. That said, it should also be noted that a range of new national organizations have emerged including the Birthright Israel Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camping and Prizma (supporting Jewish Day schools) among others.
Locally, the much-noted high cost of Jewish living and the disinclination of millennials to join institutions has created membership challenges (hence budget shortfalls) for some Reform and Conservative synagogues, which have in turn led to a number of congregational mergers and consolidations. While noteworthy, these occurrences are still rare. Membership dues, user fees, and philanthropy from constituents continue to be the main funding sources for local institutions. Despite the challenges mentioned, most of the institutions that provided the framework for Jewish life 20-plus years ago remain intact.
In the world of Jewish community-wide philanthropy, local Federations emerged in the early 20th century as central bodies for coordinating fundraising and planning to address the growing needs that emerged as waves of European Jewish immigrants reached America’s shores between l880 and l920. In the late l930s, the national United Jewish Appeal (UJA) was created along with community-based UJAs established in virtually every Jewish community in North America. National and local UJAs raised funds for “overseas needs” – primarily for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). These two global agencies provided essential care for Jewish communities throughout the world and rescued Jews enabling them to create new lives in Israel. Between l948 and l952, in just the first five years of the country’s existence, the Jewish Agency rescued nearly three-quarters of a million Jews, resettling them in Israel. By l985, the community based Federations and UJAs had merged in all communities.
As both direct giving emerged in American philanthropy and “American friends of” groups were established by Israeli universities, hospitals, and cultural institutions, many sage observers anticipated a concomitant substantial weakening of Federations. Despite such concerns, the l48 Federations continue to raise close to a billion dollars via their annual campaigns and well over $2 billion from all sources (annual campaigns, capital campaigns, donor advised funds, planned giving, etc.).11 While the total amounts raised have surpassed most predictions, the numbers of Federation donors has declined significantly, although most of this decline has taken place at the lower levels of giving (under $1,000) with the decline in efficacy and increased costs associated with direct marketing (direct mail, telemarketing, e-philanthropy). Said differently, Federations’ funding – although challenged on many fronts -– has remained far stronger than virtually all pundits predicted in the l990s.
Following the l967 Six Day War, when Federations exploded philanthropically and became the primary vehicle for North American Jews to express their support for and solidarity with Israel, Federations grew and for several decades dominated the central square of North American Jewish Philanthropy. Beginning in the l980s and l990s, many significant Jewish communal donors – virtually all prior and continuing leaders and contributors to Federations – established family foundations, the largest often professionally managed. The foundations they established are now well known in the Jewish world.12 While virtually all these foundations continue to provide support for their local Federations and local institutions, they have also forged significant high visibility initiatives – some national – reflecting their interests and their view of what is required to address what they consider the most serious issues facing the Jewish community. To cite but three, the various Wexner leadership programs, Birthright, and PJLibrary were planned and launched by family foundations, which in turn sought and established funding partnerships with Federations, other foundations, and in the case of Birthright, with the Government of Israel to sustain these and other initiatives.
In parallel to these new trends, many of the largest donors to Jewish communal purposes were increasingly becoming involved in major American universities, cultural institutions, and hospitals. Jews of wealth and influence were recruited to serve on the boards of these institutions and expected to contribute. And they did. The names of major Jewish donors now adorn the walls of virtually every significant American university, cultural institution, and hospital – many of which precluded Jewish participation until the middle of the 20th century.13 In most areas of North American life, the borders that once excluded Jewish participation have evaporated, including in philanthropy.
An additional trend influencing North American Jewish philanthropy is the explosion of direct giving. In a culture that celebrates individualism, this attitude has also become foundational for many philanthropists. Whereas communal giving was heralded in the early and mid-20th century, we are now in an era in which individuals are encouraged to express themselves including via their philanthropy. Hence, increasingly engaged Jews gravitate to support institutions in which they actively participate, or institutions that reflect their values and particular areas of interest.
As a result of these and other factors, North American Jewish philanthropy has become less centralized and far more diffuse over the past two decades. Significant initiatives are now forged by Federations, family foundations, and by individual donors. Partnerships are then sought linking such initiatives with community-based organizations and local institutions – synagogues, JCCs, Hillels, summer camps, schools, and social services agencies – where Jewish life is lived.
How may we then assess the material health of the North American Jewish community and its resilience in coping with the changes that currently surround it and those to come? As noted, North American Jewish philanthropy is undergoing a transition from a highly centralized system to one that is more diffuse. It remains true that membership dues, user fees, and fund-raising at the local level continue to provide the largest income streams for the core local gateway institutions where Jewish life is lived. But we are far from being able to predict with confidence the course of trends and the implications of the changes underway in North American Jewish philanthropy for understanding the financial reality of contemporary Jewish life and the evolving roles of Federations, foundations, individual clients and members, and other sources that sustain the essential institutions of North American Jewish life.
But in keeping with the famous song, “the fundamental things apply as time goes by.” As in past generations, Jewish identity and Jewish philanthropy will continue to be intrinsically linked. Living in the most open societies in which Jews have ever found themselves, individual Jews will only provide financial support and invest in Jewish life and Jewish communal institutions if their identification as Jews carries positive individual reinforcement and with that the commitment to sustaining and strengthening the Jewish people. During the past three decades, Federations, foundations and individual Jewish donors have elevated the priority and increased funding for the purpose of strengthening Jewish education, various enhancers of Jewish identity, and Jewish life in general. At present, both renewal and decline are taking place. Major new initiatives have been launched: a growing number of synagogues, JCCs, and Hillels are working to become more compelling and engaging Jewish life spaces; Birthright has now brought over 550,000 young men and women to Israel, and Masa, the most successful follow-up program to Birthright, is now bringing over 12,000 participants to Israel each year for extended periods of study, volunteering, and service. College campuses offer far more Jewish programming than was the case just 20 years ago, and Jewish Studies programs have proliferated on North American university campuses. New start-ups on both the supply and demand sides of philanthropy are emerging in every sphere.
And yet, simultaneously, North American Jews continue to exhibit high levels of assimilation and intermarriage. North American Jewry, despite living in a society at the apex of technological and economic proficiency, finds itself confronting the full experience of modernity. All the former borders and boundaries between North American Jews and the broader culture have been sundered. With the exception of those who have consciously chosen to live in more isolated contexts, most American Jews find themselves in the Open Society. In a practical sense, all North American Jews are Jews by choice, not just those who convert from outside the fold. The work of the next few decades will challenge North American Jewish leaders to create the architecture for compelling Jewish lives. This alone under such circumstances has the prospect of leading far larger numbers of Jews to a fulfilling self-identity and engagement in Jewish life. Not because they are forced to; they are not. Not because of guilt; they have none. But because of the meaning and purpose they find in experiencing Jewish life. This is a prodigious challenge, but also an opportunity. The outcome remains uncertain. But the material strength of North American Jews and North American Jewish philanthropy will be a critical determinant of that outcome.