Boxed Out: Givers Dwindle as the Playing Field Shifts


For Philip Cohen, it all started with his mother's tzedakah box.

The 67-year-old businessman and book publisher recalls watching her stash a little bit away in a Hadassah pushka almost every day during his childhood. That image, more than anything else, brought home the importance of giving to Jewish causes, he said.

Now, Cohen and his wife, Marcia, who reside in Villanova, support a host of Jewish causes in the United States and Israel. Their most recent gift was $2 million to the Florida-based JAFCO-Jewish Adoption and Foster Care Options, which serves abused children, in the hopes that the agency will one day open a facility here.

Cohen is far from alone. For members of his generation, stuffing change and bills into a tin box for the Jewish National Fund or Hadassah was as Jewish a ritual as eating bagels and lox.

Giving to synagogues, federations and the JNF was a key expression of Jewish ethnic and religious identity, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. The phenomenon of what he termed mass philanthropy held true for both rich and less-well-off families.

Cohen said that he strongly felt "a responsibility to Jewish causes first."

Leonard Barrack, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, put it this way. "My parents taught me that if Jews don't help other Jews, who will?"

The culture of supporting mostly Jewish causes was reinforced by the fact that, for a long time, the boards of most of the city's major cultural institutions were largely closed to Jews.

As that changed over decades, and as younger Jews grew less particularistic than their parents (and certainly their grandparents), the giving paradigm began to shift dramatically as well.

As a result, Jews today are sending more and more charitable dollars outside the Jewish community.

That reality was brought home starkly by the findings of the 2009 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia, which was released in January.

The report found that 30 percent of Jewish households in the region donated solely to non-Jewish causes over the previous year. Among higher income families, households exceeding $100,000 annually, that figure climbed to about 33 percent. At the same time, 5 percent of households give only to Jewish causes, with most of those households reporting a lower income, less than $50,000, the study reported. The majority of households, 53 percent, donated to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes.

Still Looking for Clues 
The report didn't provide clues as to whether this largest group of donors is giving more charitable dollars to Jewish or non-Jewish causes. But in a 2001 study, the late researcher Gary Tobin wrote that if the typical Jewish philanthropist once gave about 70 percent of his or her charitable dollars to Jewish causes, that number is now closer to 30 percent. Fundraisers at Federation and other Jewish organizations said they didn't have hard and fast numbers — and that it was difficult to know what their donors gave to other causes — but that Tobin's breakdown matched their perceptions.

According to Sarna, the past 20 years have seen the donor base of the national federation system — which serves as the central fundraising body of the Jewish community –fall from 900,000 to fewer than 500,000.

The local Federation hasn't been immune. From 2004 to 2009, its donor base dropped from 26,240 to 19,462. There are an estimated 116,000 Jewish households in the five-county region, according to the population survey.

Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, described the findings about the percentage of households giving solely to non-Jewish organizations as a "shocker."

"One would expect to see the overwhelming majority of Jews contributing to Jewish and non-Jewish causes," said Schwartz. "But to see that a third of Jews or more, who are philanthropic, don't give to any Jewish causes at all, was a real surprise."

To reach this demographic, Federation and other Jewish organizations will have to hone their message and make a compelling case for why the resources are needed, said Schwartz. The population study — and what it reveals about the vulnerabilities of the Jewish elderly and poor, along with other communal challenges — can serve as a tool for Federation to make such a pitch, he added.

To be sure, when it comes to surveys on charitable giving, demographers — even the authors of the Philadelphia study — urged caution about interpreting the data. Researchers often talk about the "halo effect" in which respondents claim making donations they might not actually have given.

The local study, for example, found that 88 percent of responding households claimed that, in the past year, they had made some kind of charitable donation, either Jewish or non-Jewish.

Robert Evans, managing director of the EHL Consulting Group and a former fundraiser for Federation, said that this figure seems too high to be valid. According to Giving USA, an annual report on philanthropy nationwide, about 70 percent of American households make some kind of charitable contribution.

But Schwartz maintained that the numbers present enough of a window into the community to spark debate over future courses of action.

How to Reverse the Trend?

The challenge for policy makers is how to reverse existing trends. What do organizations need to do to ensure a higher percentage of Jewish dollars goes to Jewish causes? And — this is perhaps the million-dollar flip side of that question — how do entities stop the communal donor base from shrinking further?

"One of the messages to the Jewish community is that we have to do a better job at outreach, at all levels of the economic spectrum," said Evans.

Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History, said that he wasn't surprised by the study's findings.

Despite the fact that fundraising for the museum's new building, slated to open in November, has already raised $125 million of its $150 million capital campaign, Rosenzweig said the study shows that all Jewish organizations are, to some degree, facing the same situation.

"It means that Jewish organizations, at some very basic level, are not connecting with our principle constituents," said Rosenzweig.

There are ample explanations for why Jews are sending more dollars to a plethora of causes that aren't specifically Jewish. In the United States, financing Jewish charities was originally the province of the most successful German Jewish immigrants, such as famed financier Jacob Schiff.

American Jewish giving really came into its own in the wake of World War I. With Jewish communities in Europe devastated, millions of new American immigrants pitched in to help their brethren back in the old country. In a sense, when the age-old Jewish custom of giving tzedakah fully meshed with the American culture of volunteerism, the results produced a network of Jewish hospitals and social service organizations, including the consolidation of the Federation system as the central body for communal fundraising.

The outpouring of dollars intensified in the wake of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, when sending assistance to the Jewish state practically became a religious commandment.

At the same time, through until at least the mid-20th century, the boards of top cultural institutions, museums and hospitals remained largely closed to Jews. For large donors in particular, Jewish institutions were the primary address for financial largess.

"Once non-Jewish philanthropies really admitted and welcomed Jews into their upper echelons, many Jews felt they ought to give," said Sarna.

For many Jewish families, donating to causes such as homeless shelters and hospitals was understood as a clear expression of Jewish values, say philanthropy experts.

In many ways, they say, the question of Jewish dollars can't be separated from issues of affiliation, intermarriage or even what it means to perform a mitzvah.

There's clearly a split in how to interpret the long-term shift, even among those who care deeply about the Jewish community.

Jerry Stern, 59, treasurer of the Harry Stern Foundation — which supports a range of mostly Jewish organizations, including day schools — said that increasing rates of intermarriage and declining rates of synagogue affiliation have led to the exodus of funds.

In fact, of the households saying they donate to Federation, 58 percent are inmarried while only 6 percent are intermarried. The rest are single.

Rachael Chou, a 29-year-old Center City resident who sits on the boards of the Collaborative, which creates programming for Jews in their 20s and 30s, and Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning — and is married to a man who isn't Jewish — has a very different perspective.

Chou, who works at a Philadelphia charter school, said she sees plenty of giving among her peers but most of her Jewish friends give to causes that aren't specifically Jewish.

A favorite of Chou's is Heifer International, which focuses on poverty and hunger in developing nations; Chow wrote a check to the group in honor of the High Holidays.

"If you are working at healing the world, then you are leading a Jewish life, no matter if you are doing it in the Jewish community or not," she said.

Shawn Neuman, 30, a Center City lawyer who is a member of Federation's Renaissance Group, finds the trend of charitable dollars leaving the Jewish community more troublesome.

He and his wife, Sara, also support the Spruce Foundation, which serves underprivileged youth, but devote most of their available time and dollars to Federation, he said.

It's important for Jewish groups to engage Jews in their 30s, because that's an age when charitable habits are set, he said

"It's a reciprocal relationship, giving to Jewish causes directly correlates to the level of connectedness to the Jewish community," said Neuman.

Schwartz said that Jewish organizations have to make a stronger case for themselves and their mission, whether they focus on Jewish education, Jews overseas, or serving the poor and jobless right here in Philadelphia.

"It's wonderful that people are giving to non-Jewish causes, and they should continue to do that," said Schwartz. "But also don't forget about the Jewish community and give there, too, because the needs are great right now.

"Don't leave the Jewish causes behind," he added. "Let's make sure that we also take care of our own in the process."


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