Monday, April 28, 2003

The Grass and the Money are Greener Elsewhere

We should not be surprised that, as a recent study has shown, a declining share of charitable giving by Jews is going to other than Jewish causes. Philanthropy inevitably goes the way of all American Jewish flesh, so that as advanced assimilation takes a heavy toll in undermining commitment and identity, it also results in Jews who have abandoned their ties to our community spreading their wealth elsewhere. If there is a surprise in our pattern of philanthropy, it is that despite so much loss, our communal institutions and causes continue to attract as much support as they do.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey suggested that Jews are not an especially charitable people, an against-the-grain conclusion that has apparently been supported by several other studies. Several years ago, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, regarded as an authoritative source, reported that few major gifts were being given by Jews. That report was errant, which is true of every other study that I have seen of American Jewish philanthropy, including several conducted by scholars who have done good work. Their defect is that nearly total reliance is placed on a limited range of public sources, the upshot being that much of our charitable giving – including bequests – is omitted.

Much the same can be said about the Forbes heavily-promoted annual report of America’s 400 wealthiest, an exercise that is essentially a gimmick to attract readers and advertisers and which relies inordinately on the value of stock holdings of public companies, excluding other primary sources of wealth such as real estate and ownership of private companies.

I believe that Jews continue to be blessed with a powerful charitable instinct, a conclusion that obviously is shared by top officials, notably development officers, at major eleemosynary institutions such as hospitals, universities and museums who routinely target Jews as prospective big givers. Despite the extraordinary behavioral changes brought about by assimilation, this instinct has survived among Jews, often in a transmuted form. Instead of being parochial in their philanthropy, increasingly American Jews respond to fundraising appeals that are entirely secular and outside the pale of our communal activity.

Lest it be thought that this assessment of Jewish philanthropy arises from an excess of ethnocentrism, I hasten to add that there are other religious groups whose adherents give abundantly to charity.

Even when intermarriage rates were low and the sense of Jewish identity was far stronger than it now is, there was a pronounced turn towards secularism in our philanthropy, in good measure because wealthy Jews tend to be more assimilated. In the heyday of the Federation world – the generation after the Holocaust – major Jewish philanthropy had a distinctive universalistic bent, the specific aim being to include charitable activities that, in the main, assisted persons who were not Jewish.

More recently, as the accumulation of wealth rose into the stratosphere, the super-rich in our community were no longer content with the nominal philanthropic channels and they established private foundations that reflected their priorities. Importantly, this development has turned out to be immensely salutary from a Jewish standpoint because it has resulted in sharp increases in intra-communal charity, although strangely these figures usually do not appear in the reports of American Jewish philanthropy.

As key Jewish leaders whose status is largely predicated on their affluence have increased their contributions to Jewish causes, more than a few have also sought outlets for their philanthropy that are away from Jewish life. As notable examples, the Tisch name is affixed to what once was the University Hospital of NYU, while also at NYU there is the Steinhardt School of Education. There are numerous other illustrations of this trend in the New York area and around the country. Naming opportunities at major universities, hospitals and cultural centers come with large price tags. When the bait is taken, the ensuing gift is apt to be quite large. Michael Steinhardt and the Tisch’s are not incidental Jewish machers. They are right at the top of the communal totem pole and their actions are telling.

There is no single explanation for this philanthropic dualism, although one factor is the determination of some of our involved super-rich to be important players outside of Jewish affairs. This should not be surprising since their business activity has little or nothing to do with Jewish life. Likely, they feel an obligation to give back to the society that has been good to them (and Jews) by contributing to the arts or medicine or education or other enterprises that meet important social needs.

It is also likely that ego gratification comes into play, which is to say that charity partakes of the same emotions and drives that impel much else in human behavior. An argument can be made that, in fact, ego is a more potent force in philanthropy than in other social activities. Especially among Jews who have all but abandoned any residual Jewish ties there is a desire – some may call it a compulsion – to be accepted by high society or the better people and their philanthropy pays the entrance fee.

There may also be the feeling that the compass of Jewish life is too narrow to satisfy people who are, after all, powerful because of their wealth. It’s true that at the Presidents Conference (of some) Major American Jewish Organizations there are fabulously wealthy people who covet the chairman’s position. That is a special situation because it brings entry to the White House and other high places. Elsewhere in organized Jewish life, macherdom is a dreary world populated by mediocrities whose time is consumed by mostly meaningless exercises. Why should our biggest big shots want to place all of their philanthropic bets on this world?

It remains that for all of the outward flow of our philanthropic funds, when we tally what is taken in by Jewish causes, here and in Israel, the sum is truly impressive. Our tradition of tzedakah remains strong.