Reaping their fruits
With young and relatively prosperous American Jewish communities channeling their donations to local causes rather than to annual fund-raising campaigns for Israel, the local federations and the Jewish Agency are feeling the pinch
The Jewish community of San Diego is one of the youngest and most dynamic in the United States. About 90,000 Jews now live in the city and its environs, more than half having moved there in the past 20 years. Thirty synagogues, a network of private schools, religious institutions, cultural events, kosher restaurants and other businesses ensure a rich and diversified Jewish life in the city.
The Jews of San Diego are known for their philanthropy. According to a poll conducted at the beginning of the year by the local Jewish Federation, 82 percent of the community's members give to charity and 52 percent direct their contributions to Jewish organizations. However, the generosity of the San Diego Jews does not manifest itself when it comes to the annual local federation campaign for Israel and the Jewish people. This is an appeal launched by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) of North America, the umbrella organization of the federations, and part of an annual fund-raising campaign. Conducted by 155 federations and some 400 small Jewish communities throughout the United States, the campaign constitutes the central channel through which American Jews donate money to Israel and to Jewish causes in the U.S. and worldwide.
In San Diego, some $7 million is raised every year - about one-fifth of what Detroit, a veteran Jewish community of similar size, manages. Thirty-four of the 36 main donors in San Diego are above the age of 60. Furthermore, San Diego is not the only growing Jewish community in which the UJC is having trouble raising funds: The one in Las Vegas, which numbers about 80,000 people and is considered the fastest-growing Jewish community in the U.S., donated only about $2 million during the last campaign. The situation in these young communities reflects the difficulties the UJC is encountering in general in its fund-raising efforts among such communities, especially in the western and southern U.S.
According to Brian Tauber, a successful high-tech entrepreneur in his 40s who is volunteer chairman of the campaign in San Diego, there are many Jewish businessmen in the city who achieved economic success in their 40s and 50s, but don't want to hear about the campaign. "It doesn't have the penash, the kind of a cool factor. It's almost looked upon as a negative thing. People see the federation as a taxing organization, an organization that only contacts you when they want your money and essentially dictates to you where the money is going, and don't even do a good job in telling you what they finally did with it. Donors nowadays want information, they want return on their investment. To say just `50 percent of your money is going to Israel' or `Give us your money and will make sure that the right people get it,' isn't appealing to them," says Tauber.
Concern in the Agency
What bothers Tauber also troubles Sallai Meridor, the chairman of the Jewish Agency. The donations from the U.S. are the main funding source of the Agency and constitute nearly 80 percent of the donations from all of world Jewry each year. At meeting of the Agency's board of governors held last week in Jerusalem it was decided to take action that will make the organization more attractive for donors. The recommendations were drawn up by Ronit Dolev from Israel and Karen Barth from the U.S., two strategic planning consultants who were hired by the Agency.
They recommended that the Agency minimize the list of programs in which it is active and focus on a small number of projects that are of importance to Israeli society and also interest donors. These are mainly initiatives for young people in spheres such as immigrant absorption, as well as bringing young adults to Israel for studies or tours. Another area the Agency will try to develop involves forging partnerships between Jewish-American and Israeli donors.
The decision to make strategic changes in the Agency's structure was not adopted as a defensive measure, but as an initiative to increase donations, Meridor says. He adds that the scope of the donations received this year did not fall below the targets. However, the findings of Dolev and Barth present a gloomy picture from the Agency's point of view. According to data from the Bank of Israel, the past 10 years have seen a drastic decline in donations to the "national institutions" - and above all to the Jewish Agency. In 1990 these bodies received a total of $565 million from the world's Jews, whereas in 2000 they received only $270 million - a drop of more than 50 percent.
Dolev and Barth emphasize that the data do not indicate a weakening of the desire of world and American Jewry to donate to Israel. On the contrary, according to the same source, this period witnessed a dramatic surge of some 400 percent in donations from abroad to nongovernmental organizations in Israel. Institutions such as hospitals and universities and "third-sector" organizations received $547 million in 1990 and $2.25 billion in 2000.
In addition, the researchers found that Israel continues to be very popular among American Jewry, despite a certain weakening of support among young people.
"The meaning of the data is that the relations between Israel and world Jewry, and especially American Jewry, are undergoing a privatization process," Dolev says. "The era of collective mobilization, when American Jews gave Israel money to use as it pleased, is disappearing. Institutions like the Jewish Agency have to adjust to the new situation in order to survive."
Meridor is convinced that the Jewish Agency will remain relevant. As he sees it, in a situation where every donor acts as he sees fit, a body like the Agency is needed to bring order out of the chaos.
According to Prof. Steven Cohen from the Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the leading researchers of American Jewry, the collective identity of the 5.5 million Jews in the U.S. is in a process of decline. Cohen believes that two camps are emerging within American Jewry, which are moving from the center toward two poles. The first camp is experiencing a process of the strengthening of its Jewish identity. Among this group there has been an increase in synagogue membership, an intensification of Jewish education and a return to the Jewish tradition. In contrast, the Jews of the other camp are in a process of assimilation, most clearly indicated by the ever-increasing rate of mixed marriages. The polarization process, Cohen says, is weakening the collective.
According to a number of researchers, in the long term this process is liable to endanger the continued existence of various institutions that are identified with the American-Jewish mainstream - bodies such as the Conservative Movement and national Jewish organizations such as B'nai Brith and Hadassah Women.
A similar fate is liable to befall the annual fund-raising campaign. For decades the yearly drive for donations was one of the major symbols of power of American Jewry, no less than the America Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. In the peak years a million Jews donated sums ranging from $10 to millions of dollars to the campaign. The subjects in the name of which the money was raised in large measure reflected the public agenda of U.S. Jewry. In the first years Israel was the main beneficiary of the funds, but in recent years it has lost its place to community activity in the U.S. in areas such as support for the aged, Jewish education and the operation of hundreds of different institutions and organizations. Another large chunk of the donations goes to the worldwide Joint Distribution Committee for what the Americans call "the global needs of the Jewish people," such as aid to needy Jews, and to Jews in the former Soviet Union and in Argentina.
In 1999, against the background of the changes in Jewish philanthropy dramatic change occurred in the organizational structure of American Jewry, with the establishment of the UJC. Today most Jewish leaders believe that the organization has not lived up to expectations, as it has not succeeded in ratcheting up the scale of donations. While the scale of donations remained roughly the same, the number of givers has sharply decreased. In 2004 only some 550,000 Jews donated to the campaign, about half the number in the 1990s.
According to the UJC, the source of the problem is to be found in the young generation. A session was devoted to the subject at the General Assembly of the UJC, which was held in Cleveland last November. Vicki Agron, the UJC's senior vice president for financial resource development, said that the federations were having a very hard time getting donations from the under-50 generation. The reason, she said, lies in the different mentality of this group, members of the "Me Generation."
Says Karen Barth, the strategic consultant: "The bigger the organization, it seems [the] less people like it. This is not just in the Jewish community, this is deep in American culture now, this idea of small networks of people, of personal networks replacing communal commitments."
Steve Hoffman, former CEO of the UJC, thinks the main reason is to be found in the different historical experiences of the members of the past three generations. "Today's generation," he says, "did not experience the Holocaust like my parents' generation and did not experience the fear of another Holocaust in Israel, which many of my generation did in the days before the Six-Day War. We raised our children in the period of Nixon and Vietnam in an atmosphere fraught with mistrust of establishments. Now we are reaping the fruits."