Friday, July 04, 2008

Our Money Tzoros

As the economic clouds darken further, it is apparent that we are not in the midst of a cyclical downturn of the kind that comes around every decade or so but in for something that is far more serious. The news is ominous, extending beyond steep declines in financial markets and housing, the two familiar barometers of economic health. Banks have experienced staggering losses and the stunning increases in the price of oil and other key commodities are developments that will retard any easy or early recovery. We are beset by severe inflation at a time when nearly all financial indicators are going south. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

There are places that seem oblivious to the bad news, such as legislative bodies across the nation which appropriate money that they do not have and cannot print. They have gotten away with such political expediency because economic recovery has replenished governmental coffers. The panderers may be in for a rude awakening this time around.

Jewish communal life is feeling the pinch and this obviously is true generally of the nonprofit world. The nonprofits that have nurtured a sufficient endowment should weather the storm. Those that depend entirely on fundraising, often with some governmental largesse thrown in for good measure, will experience rough sledding. Federations are already howling in pain and there is talk of staff and service cutbacks. This newspaper reported last week the decision to close NYANA, an agency with a good record of assistance to Jewish refugees and immigrants. Other organizations and projects may follow suit.

For American Jewry there is the corollary unsettling development in the startling 25% decline of the dollar against the shekel, a decline that translates into a sharp drop in what Israeli causes are receiving. There is a steadily rising chorus of wailing and lamentations from the Holy Land. While we must be concerned about the financial stability of Israeli institutions, it’s time to recognize that although there are many poor Israelis, Israel is no longer a poor country and its government should invest far more than it now does in the social and economic infrastructures. It deserves mentioning also that the dollar’s decline inevitably means that a greater number of dollars are flowing into Israel.

Instead of kvetching about the sharp economic downturn, we ought to ponder what adjustments are needed to align our commitments and activities with available resources. The bad news may be what is needed to jolt us out of our complacency, out of our inertial mindset. We just might assess whether all of the organizations on our communal landscape are needed. This isn’t an easy challenge even with the impetus provided by financial shortfalls because it is in the nature of organizations and their machers to soldier on even if what they are attempting to achieve is relatively meaningless.

I imagine that nationally and locally we can lop off several hundred organizations, agencies and projects without their disappearance negatively affecting the character of American Jewry. Most do very little and the little they do can be absorbed by the survivors. This isn’t going to happen anytime soon, although if fundraising nosedives, necessity may be the mother of invention.

Whatever the fate of organizations, hopefully we will rein in our ravenous appetite for collateral activities, including a packed agenda of conventions and conferences, meaningless research and reports and the reliance on a huge cohort of experts and consultants who have responsibility for nothing and whose bank accounts are fattened when they are hired to tell those who do have responsibility how to do a better job.

It is impossible to estimate how much our conferencing costs. The certain figure is way above $100 million annually and it is climbing rapidly. In fact, Israel’s appetite matches ours, as there is a steady parade of such events, including many in academic settings that deal with arcane subjects or those that have already been discussed endlessly. It was recently reported that the world Jewish conference convened by President Shimon Peres cost $17 million, an astounding figure even if it includes preparatory work and follow-up. I haven’t seen a single comment questioning the extravagance.

Then there is the cosmetic activity, the quickie research that scarcely anyone pays attention to and the reports that are dead on arrival. We now have an army of academics and former functionaries who understand that the grass is greener when pseudo-expertise is being marketed. Intended or not, their enterprise is exploitative, if not cynical.

I fear that the brunt of any hardships resulting from financial constraint will be most felt in places where we can least afford to cut back, primarily in day schools and activities aimed at enhancing Jewish commitment. I expect that if the choice is between support of what goes on in school and support of an educational conference, the latter will win out. We love to feed what is inconsequential and the proof is in the roster of Jewish educational conferences.

Our economic life operates not merely at the communal level but importantly consists of hundreds of thousands of stories, of how people fare in the job market and how families cope and what they cut back when they face financial hardship. In view of the high cost of day school education, there is the prospect that we will see a drop in enrollment in those sectors for whom a day school education is as much an option as it is a religious obligation. There is, in short, much to be fearful about.