American Jews Donate Early and Often, but Usually Not to Israel

Think you know who gives to which causes? 16 percent of non-Orthodox U.S. Jews give to (mainly Orthodox) Israeli religious organizations, new study finds.

NEW YORK – American Jews are more philanthropic than their non-Jewish neighbors, both in the percentage of people who give and the amounts they donate, a new study being released this week reveals.

According to the study, 76 percent of American Jews made a charitable contribution in 2012, compared to 63 percent of non-Jewish Americans in general did so. The median amount given annually was $1,200 and $600, respectively, for the two groups.

The study, “Connected to Give: Key Findings from the National Study of American Jewish Giving,” looks at how someone’s age, income and Jewish social engagement, or the level of their involvement with the Jewish community, affect their charitable giving. It was conducted earlier this year by the Los Angeles-based Jumpstart, which calls itself a “philanthropic research and design lab.”

Jumpstart CEO J. Shawn Landres shared exclusively with Haaretz findings about what types of Israel-related causes American Jews gave to. The study found that a decided minority of American Jews gives to Israel-related organizations. Of American Jews overall, 34 percent gave to at least one Israel-related cause. Among non-Orthodox Jews, that number fell to 30 percent.

Of those who gave to Israel-related causes, 44 percent gave to traditional Zionist groups such as the Jewish National Fund and Hadassah. Thirty-two percent gave to a U.S.-based Israel advocacy organization, such as AIPAC, J Street or Americans for Peace Now, while 29 percent donated to a charity operating in Israel and 24 percent gave to Israeli religious institutions, including yeshivas and midrashot. Fifteen percent gave to arts and culture groups or to the Maccabi sports organization; to organizations serving West Bank Jewish settlements; and to groups that sponsor trips to Israel, such as the Birthright Israel Foundation.

Challenging conventional wisdom

The study yielded some surprising results. It found that 13 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who donated to Israeli causes contributed to groups that serve the settlements, for example, and that 16 percent of non-Orthodox Jews gave to religious educational groups in Israel, the overwhelming majority of which are Orthodox.

Another unexpected finding, Landres told Haaretz, was that 9.5 percent of non-Orthodox Jews and around 12 percent of Orthodox Jews who gave to Israeli causes targeted groups advocating for civil rights, civil society or coexistence, including the New Israel Fund, Gush Shalom and Peace Now, organizations usually thought of as appealing to liberal Jews.

Jewish organizations need to set aside what they think they know about their potential donors, Landres said, and approach a broader pool. “It raises important questions about which donors ought to be pursued. Giving reflects your sense of connectedness to community even if it doesn’t line up the way people think it should,” he said. “It challenges conventional wisdom about who gives where.

“By making assumptions about who non-Orthodox or Orthodox people are, fund raisers potentially write off prospective donors,” said Landres. “We know that there are lots of Jewish organizations fund-raising successfully among politically diverse groups, but I have not seen substantial coexistence or civil rights groups reach out to the Orthodox,” he said. “It’s about not writing off people based on assumptions of what they think.”

That there is a strong correlation between Jewish social engagement, that is, whether someone is married to a Jew, what proportion of their friends are Jewish, how often, if ever, they attend religious services and whether they volunteer for religious or charitable organizations, is not new. It was startlingly clear in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, whose findings led to a nearly complete reassessment of American Jewish communal priorities and sparked a focus on outreach to the substantial number of disengaged, mostly younger, Jews.

But this is the first study, Landres said, to break down in such a granular way the type of causes American Jews give to and how their Jewish commitments correlate to their giving. “Behavior in terms of Jewish social engagement is a far more important predictor of their giving than their saying that being Jewish mattered to them,” Landres said. “The data suggest that who you are has a stronger relationship with Jewish charitable giving than how you feel.”

The study, which has cost about $700,000 to date, Landres said, began when Jumpstart and Jeffrey Solomon, who heads the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in New York, wanted to look at innovation among American Jewish groups and found that they needed to identify who was giving where before they could see whether innovation was attracting new donors.

The research team included public opinion researcher Jim Gerstein, demographer Steven M. Cohen and professors from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of philanthropy. The key funders who, Landres said, were involved every step of the way, included ACBP, the Max & Marjorie Fisher Foundation, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Morningstar Fund and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

A quintessential Jewish-American attribute

Another key finding of the new study was that nearly all — 92 percent — of Jews who make charitable contributions do so to non-Jewish organizations, while just 79 percent give to Jewish organizations.

“Overall, Jews are more likely to support non-Jewish organizations than Jewish ones; and this difference is particularly striking for basic needs, health, arts, and environmental causes,” the report states. “Twenty-one percent of Jewish donors gave only to non-Jewish organizations; 4% gave only to Jewish organizations.”

American Jewish organizations often reflect anxiety about their share of what is perceived as “a shrinking pie” of donors. But, says Landres, donors say “the language of competition between Jewish and non-Jewish [organizations] is actually alienating. If we can move our language to a ‘both/and’ framework, people will be more receptive to Jewish organizations that are active in the causes they care about.”

To attract young donors, “we need to think about celebrating all giving by Jews as Jewish giving. Even among the most Jewishly engaged people, only about 60 percent of their charitable portfolio goes to Jewish organizations. Those are people who have the highest incomes, are in their peak giving years and are highly Jewishly engaged. We can’t turn around and say to those people that the other 40 percent of their giving is not Jewish gifts,” Landres said. “We should change our language and celebrate charitable giving as a quintessential American Jewish attribute.”

After all, he said, “The more people give, the more they will give to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes.”

A Jerusalem yeshiva
Olivier Fitoussi