Can Jewish Institutions Survive Without Mega Donors?

As large donors such as Sheldon Adelson seem to be increasingly involved in setting policy at Jewish institutions, Open Hillel tries to push back with a modest counter-offensive.

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Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, at a news conference in Macau, China, in September 2012.Credit: Bloomberg

On various indicators, it seems that the Jewish community is becoming ever more inclusive religiously. But in the realm of politics — especially around the topic of Israel — it seems the opposite is true. Particularly now, when Israelis are under attack from Palestinian terrorism, emotions are naturally running high. But we know that the degree of peacefulness in Israel has not always correlated with an absence of political litmus tests in our own Jewish communities. To be accepted by mainstream institutions has increasingly meant keeping mum on issues around human rights and the occupation.

Back in 2012, sensing that the gates of open discussion — particularly around Israel — were closing, a group of university students on various American college campuses founded Open Hillel. And now, with billionaire philanthropist Sheldon Adelson having attempted to launch his campus Maccabees program in consultation with other Jewish institutional players, Open Hillel students are pushing back with a modest counter-offensive of their own.

Called “Jews Not Funded by Sheldon Adelson,” their tumblr encourages people to send photos of themselves doing Jewish activities outside of the purview of big-donor backing. “Amelia writes plays about Jewish identity, with no donor pressure!” says one. “Gabi feels connected to shechinah in nature: Zionist mega-donors nowhere to be seen,” says another. And a third: “Mia drove four hours each way to spend the High Holy Days with her family. Sheldon Adelson didn’t even offer to chip in for gas.” (Disclosure: I am on Open Hillel’s academic advisory council but did not advise on this particular campaign.)

As Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a co-founder of Open Hillel, describes it, the Maccabees summit that Adelson convened — which also included Hillel heads — promotes “the idea that Jewish communities should be turned into political training camps sold to the highest bidder.” The result is “marginalizing folks critical of Israel and critical of the occupation, clamping down on Palestinian partnerships, and exacerbating the problems existing in Hillel."

But she’s quick to clarify that the “idea of the tumblr is not to promote purity politics The vast majority of people in this tumblr have participated in an Adelson-funded [program], whether Birthright or something else.” And in fact, perusing Hillel International’s 2014 annual report reveals that Adelson doesn’t actually donate to Hillel International. And anyway, the problem identified by Open Hillel is arguably true in many Jewish institutions nowadays, whether or not mega-donors like Adelson are involved.

As someone who has felt pushed to the margins of my own mainstream Jewish community I was curious whether Rachel had given the mainstream community, in this case in the form of Hillel, a chance. From her, I learned that she only got involved with co-founding Open Hillel after she felt pushed out of Hillel proper.

As an undergraduate at Harvard in 2012, Rachel had attempted to organize a Hillel event through the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Hillel-affiliated group. The event, called “Jewish voices against the occupation,” was initially approved by Hillel, but the organization did a quick about-face once Hillel International and Boston’s local Jewish Federation threatened to cut funding. The event was slated to involve a partnership with the Palestine Solidarity Committee on campus, an organization that supports BDS. Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership forbids this.

“We thought it would be wrong on a number of counts to exclude our campus’s Palestinian group from a discussion of the occupation,” Rachel recalls. And indeed it’s hard to find a Palestinian organization nowadays that doesn’t support BDS. “So we moved the event out of Hillel but we felt pretty strongly that that wasn’t a choice we should have to make.”

For Hillel International’s part, they see their mandate as serving all Jews. As Matthew Berger, spokesman for Hillel International put it, “We are here to help students feel at home no matter their politics or their beliefs.”

“We respect the right of people who hold views outside community values to speak on campus — but Hillel may not be the right forum for it,” Berger adds. Whether the judgment calls on whether Hillel is the right forum or not for any given event are motivated by donor pressure is not an issue we broached directly.

But assuming there is truth to the dynamic that the Open Hillel leadership has identified, namely that a small cadre of large donors is increasingly managing the Jewish institutional agenda, a dynamic I have seen firsthand in other Jewish institutions, we still need to ask whether the engines of these institutions would be able to survive without these types of donors, outsized say and all.

Rachel believes they can.

“It will take some creative reformulation in terms of cultivation of new donors, and a grass-roots approach to fundraising." Rachel thinks “there’s a choice to be made here. I don’t think we are inevitably tied to the whims of donors. I think if Jewish communities made their priorities clear, many would support that.”