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2018 Annual Assessment

In recent years, Jewish media outlets have repeatedly described the changing state of Jewish philanthropy. A June 2018 article captured the message that has dominated reporting on Jewish giving: “How Entrepreneurs are Disrupting Philanthropy.”1 The Avi Chai Foundation’s 51-page study advanced this core message: “Giving Jewish: How big funders have transformed American Jewish philanthropy.” Written by Prof. Jack Wertheimer, the report documents that 250 Jewish foundations, currently making annual grants of $500,000 or more to Jewish causes, give between $900 million and $1 billion USD each year. To set the context, total annual giving in the U.S. and Israel amounts to roughly $5.5 billion USD annually.2 The report concludes, “the philanthropic landscape has changed fundamentally over the past quarter century.”

But has it? And in which spheres?

To more fully understand the nature of Jewish giving and the funding for Jewish life, JPPI has initiated a multi-year study of Jewish giving. More specifically, it seeks to aggregate data so that JPPI researchers and the community may learn in far more detailed ways about the nature and sources of funding for Jewish life. In stage I, JPPI will focus on the sources of funding for Jewish life in the United States.3

In trying to track Jewish giving, delineating the boundaries of the American Jewish community is no longer clear cut. Core institutions were created by American Jews in the first decades of the 20th century to respond to the needs of Jewish immigrants that reached its shores. In addition to synagogues, community centers, summer camps, and the first day schools, the Jewish community created hospitals, residences and programs for senior adults as well as social service agencies to provide essential care for the poor, the elderly, and those in need of essential health and human services. These health and human service agencies served and employed Jews in fields in which many existing institutions did not. Over time, these institutions became recognized as being of the highest quality and were accepted as respected components of the American Jewish community.

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Jewish-affiliated hospitals, social service agencies and senior adult facilities received larger and larger amounts of government funding. The requirement set by government, quite properly, was that these institutions were to serve all citizens. Entering the 21st century, they were essentially seen as part of “the governments delivery system.”4 While most were still “under Jewish auspice” and considered agencies of the extended Jewish communal network, they received most of their operational funding from government. They had become public services. These Jewishly affiliated institutions continue to approach Jewish donors and receive significant support for capital projects. The next time you enter a Jewishly affiliated hospital, senior adult residence, or social service agency, note the names of Jewish donors on the walls of these institutions. While considerable Jewish philanthropic funds continue to reach these institutions, they are no longer viewed by most observers as critical either to contemporary Jewish life or in terms of strengthening the Jewish future.

JPPI seeks to understand the sources of funding for the institutions that are considered critical for the Jewish future. With this mandate, strengthening Jewish identity and connection with Israel are viewed as the most significant challenges facing both American and world Jewry. JPPI is in the initial stage of gathering the data for this study to determine the relative importance of the sources of funding for the institutions considered critical to the Jewish future. The approach will not begin with reviewing how major Jewish donors determine to use their philanthropic funds or how Jewish foundations choose to do so. Instead, JPPI has focused on identifying the institutions considered most significant for strengthening Jewish identity and connection to Israel and then delineating their funding sources.

While virtually every Jewish institution can influence the formation of individual and community Jewish identity, some have the greatest significance—beyond one’s family—in the two broad areas of strengthening Jewish identity and connection with Israel: synagogues; Jewish community centers and, in some localities, YMHAs; Jewish summer camps (residential and day); Jewish youth organizations; Jewish day schools and yeshivas; Hillels and other campus based organizations; Israel experience programs including Birthright, Masa, and Honeymoon Israel. Each is routinely held to be collectively (and sometimes individually) decisive for those not raised in highly identified Jewish families, the settings in which Jews have been traditionally introduced to Jewish life.

JPPI will seek to understand the funding sources for national agencies that convene, coordinate and provide a range of services to strengthen the critical local gateway institutions identified above. They include but are not limited to federations and national agencies including denominations, Jewish Community Center Association (JCCA) and International Hillel. Institutions of higher Jewish learning (e.g., Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University) and boards of Jewish education see to the training of many of the professional leaders that staff and provide leadership for the other key gateway institutions and so also require attention.

Prior reports and studies of Jewish philanthropy, which have driven the “Big Givers transforming Jewish life” headlines, are limited for three reasons. First, they include Jewish giving to the institutions that are now essentially government funded—hospitals, senior adult facilities, and other social service agencies. With government now providing most of the core funding, Jewish communal and donor support is no longer essential. Prior studies also included support from donors for Israel-based institutions. While understandable and perhaps even essential depending on the objective of the individual study, including such support for Israeli institutions tends to reduce the ability to understand the nature and sources of funding for the core institutions of American Jewish life.

Second, prior studies have substantially relied upon publicly available U.S. IRS Form 990 filings, the reporting required by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service from non-profit organizations whose donors, in turn, receive tax benefits.5 Religious institutions are not required to prepare such IRS returns. Therefore, prior studies on funding for Jewish institutions have been undertaken without including data from the most ubiquitous Jewish institutions in the United States—synagogues, day schools, and yeshivas—which also tend to be among the institutions which reach and affect the most Jews, young and old.

Third, while the prior studies on Jewish givers and foundations shed light on the ways in which Jewish donors and foundations are shifting funding priorities, they cannot and do not provide an analysis or understanding of the funding sources of the institutions most essential for Jewish living and Jewish learning in the United States. In short, they concentrate on giving from the standpoint of the givers, not that of the receiving organizations.

In a pilot stage designed to provide proof of principle for the methodology, categorization and research strategy, JPPI tested its process by seeking data from ten Jewish organizations in a major U.S. city. In response, a total of six (two synagogues, a Jewish day school, two Jewish community centers and a Hillel) provided the essential framework for understanding the sources of their funding. The aggregate results —preliminary as they are—are instructive.

The 2016 budgets from these five institutions total $45,640,832. These institutions were funded from the following sources:
Table 1. Aggregate funding for six Jewish community organizations, by source of funding, 2006.

Source of funding: Amount Share of total
Membership Dues $11,435,002 25.1%
Tuition and Program Fees $16,194,526 35.5%
Contributions from members /family members $12,954,812 28.4%
Foundations $411,240 0.9%
Government $312,558 0.7%
Federations $591,873 1.3%
Other $3,124,222 6.8%
TOTAL $45,640,832 100.0%

Note: Budget for 2016 or nearest equivalent fiscal year.
Data: Jewish People Policy Institute.

These data represent only preliminary findings from a limited number of institutions. These figures may or may not broadly reflect funding patterns for a range of community-based and local institutions. When we include entities such as Birthright, Honeymoon Israel, PJ Library, or Moishe House – as well as national organizations that coordinate, convene and provide a range of resources for synagogues, day schools, JCCs, Hillels, and training institutions for Jewish professionals – the relative sources of funding may change; foundations and Federations would likely prove to be of greater significance.

However, for most American Jews, their primary settings for experiencing and being introduced to Jewish life are local community-based organizations, such as those represented in our initial small sample. If the above pattern is broadly reflective of the funding for these institutions, our understanding of the nature of contemporary funding of Jewish life will need to be updated and modified. Most of the studies and headlines have focused on the growing number of Jewish foundations and the ways in which large donors have changed Jewish giving. While there is little doubt that such studies have captured and brought to the attention of the wider Jewish community real phenomena affecting an important aspect of Jewish life in North America, we may need a broader perspective to gauge accurately what effect such trends might have and how individual Jewish communities and North American Jewry as a whole should address them.

These preliminary findings are at least suggestive of the need for greater context; Jewish scholars, the media, and conventional wisdom may have under-appreciated the essential role of membership dues, program fees and tuition, and donations from members of family members in providing the core resources for the key gateway institutions of Jewish life. None of this is to gainsay that the largest and biggest donors and foundations about which we read so much are doing important work. Birthright (taglit), for example was a “game changer” in scope and impact and remains of huge significance. It was initiated by two philanthropists – Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt – and is now primarily funded by the Government of Israel and Sheldon Adelson with additional funding from national Jewish foundations and individual donors. And such initiatives as PJ Library which distributes Jewish themed children’s books — initiated by Harold Greenspoon – is of enormous value for large numbers of American Jewish families.

The findings, while coming from an exceedingly small sample and by no means dispositive, do, however, lend support for a hypothesis that the institutions which sustain the framework for Jewish living and learning in local communities receive precious few dollars from the major national Jewish foundations and “Big Givers” unless the latter are personally connected to the institution. The large grants of major foundations, proudly announced and publicized, appear to rarely reach the critical gateway institutions which continue to frame Jewish living and Jewish learning. Membership dues, program fees, and donations from members, while small in scale, may prove to be sufficiently large in aggregate to provide the bulk of institutional funding.

The larger foundations may certainly be providing support for piloting new initiatives, educational enhancements for volunteer and professional leaders, and related programs. Big givers and large foundations are deservedly heralded in the media and in conferences they sponsor. But if the task of leadership is to “stick to their knitting,” then the leaders of core institutions of Jewish living may want to spend less time on engaging the large national donors and foundations and seek new, innovative ways of engaging and aggregating needed resources from members, clients, and those that access their programs for essential institutional support. As more information is gained and assessed, it may well appear that it is those individuals that enter the doors of institutions will be the ones most likely to open their hands and checkbooks to provide the essential support for Jewish communal living and learning.