Friday, September 27, 2002

The New Jewish Philanthropy

Of the important developments in American Jewish life during the past twenty years, few are more important or less examined than the shift in our philanthropy away from a Federation-dominated network to well-endowed and independent private foundations established by wealthy donors. We do not know how this new arrangement differs in its allocations from the Federations or, for that matter, how much the private foundations spend annually, something that we do know about Federations. The information is there since there are annual reports to IRS, but no one – at least not to my knowledge – has added up the figures or extrapolated from them funding priorities and trends.

We know, of course, that the Federations are alive, although certainly not well. Their problem is not the lack of money, as many continue to contribute and they sit on huge endowments. Unfortunately, they are mired in a bureaucratic mess that they cannot escape. At a cost of millions, they will shortly congregate in what is immodestly called the General Assembly, a yearly exercise in the being of nothingness, where they shall proclaim their self-importance to a shrinking audience.

This is a pity because Federation machers are people of good will and commitment. They are trapped in an arrangement that provides for no exit and which survives because of its bulk and the power of inertia.

Rather than fighting to change what is broken, the super-rich have set up their own shops which are bereft of old commitments. Their operations are generally lean and flexible. Because nearly all of these private foundations have been established by persons who are engaged in Jewish life, their agendas focus on such apparent goodies as Jewish education and continuity.

That’s the good news. The other news is that with few exceptions, our new age philanthropists are headed in the wrong direction. While they have bypassed the Federation network and its vast collection of agencies and also the dozens of “major” organizations that dot our communal landscape, they have not been exempt from the Jewish imperative, “organize, organize and organize some more.” They have bequeathed us additional agencies, as if we already do not have far too many. In the process they have created a new cadre of bureaucrats, often talented people who have been recruited directly from schools or other front-line positions, ensuring thereby that the leadership and talent shortage in the most vital sections of Jewish life will worsen. We can’t blame the ex-educators who now are better paid, have easier jobs, sit in plush offices, travel all over the place and also have the privilege of telling those who remain in education and on the front line what they are doing wrong.

The foundation world – referring not merely to those that are Jewish – forms a subculture in which certain norms dominate. Conferences and trips are in, as are studies, research and reports. Anything that can be described as training, including the training of those who do the training, is favored. Our philanthropists have embraced these and similar norms. Thus, it’s far better to train at considerable expense a small number of prospective teachers than to encourage good teachers to stay in the field. It’s small wonder that the teacher shortage in Jewish schools is more critical than ever.

When will we learn that education is something that takes place in the classroom. Education is the interaction between teachers and students, not the interaction between a foundation that has money to spend and agencies that have been created to go after it.

Worse yet, the new philanthropy has become the engine for the anything goes approach to Jewish continuity. An activity that has a Jewish identity label attached to it is accepted, no matter how devoid it is of Jewish content or how hostile it may be to our traditions. Words like identity, commitment, continuity and survival are the open sesames to Jewish philanthropy.

A tragic illustration is being provided by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education or PEJE. This is a cooperative effort by more than a dozen of our super-rich to encourage day school expansion. The enterprise has been badly compromised by the decision – made with near unanimity – to support schools that admit students who are not Jewish by any definition.

This dangerous position highlights a serious flaw in our reliance on day schools as effective vehicles to combat advanced assimilation and Judaic abandonment. There is already much evidence showing that many day schools are too feeble Jewishly to make a difference. Their Jewish studies curriculum hardly exists and their Jewish ambiance isn’t much better. They are essentially private schools under Jewish auspices. Like the talmud torahs and other supplementary schools that were the handmaidens to Jewish loss, even as they were being promoted as our salvation, our weak day schools will scarcely contribute to Jewish survival.

Unfortunately, the PEJE super-rich are comfortable with minimalistic Judaism, with defining our standards downwards. We must object to this awful development. There is no way that the curriculum or Jewish character of our day schools will not be adversely affected by the admission of non-Jewish students. This is a development that must be resisted, not because of any hostility toward people who are not Jewish but because of concern for the future of people who are. As it is, we face an uphill battle to maintain Jewish commitment and PEJE has made the struggle more difficult.

When they endorse anything goes Judaism, whether in day schools or, in fact, as is occurring throughout our communal life, our super-rich are demonstrating once more that millions in philanthropy can add up to lots of zeros. As they are ignorant about our heritage and blind about our present, they are being irresponsible about our future.