Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wealth & Responsibility

Tuesday & Wednesday - Charity begins with priorities


Before the global economic crisis robbed millions of their financial security and turned the world upside down for some, and before most of us had ever heard of Bernie Madoff, organizations tasked with providing basic services to Jews in the Diaspora were - as early as the winter of 2008 - reporting fund-raising shortfalls due to the drop in the value of the dollar.

For the organizations that provide humdrum but utterly indispensable services, this past year or so has been shattering.

It's looking like the United Jewish Communities will be cutting another 18 percent from its $37 million budget - on top of an earlier series of reductions and layoffs. The UJC is the successor organization to United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal. It brings together 157 local Jewish Federations and 400 independent communities across North America.

Even the solidly middle-class Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has had to trim it budget and give managers a pay cut.

Cash is down but needs are high.

Nursery tuition at a middle class Manhattan Jewish day school runs $23,875. New York's Jewish Week reported that financial aid requests from parents are soaring.

In addition to providing programming for middle class people hard hit by the recession, federations continue to look after the less well off. Roughly 15-20% of the US Jewish population lives below the federal poverty level.

The community could once count on government to carry the bulk of the burden for responsibilities such as operating nursing homes. But US municipalities and states have had to cut their allocations and the federal stimulus package will not cover the entire shortfall.

The economic crisis also means there is less money leaving America for the Jewish Agency and the American Joint Distribution Committee, which helps overseas communities. During Operation Cast Lead, for instance, the federation system provided a credit line to pay for programs that helped Sderot residents receive treatment for trauma.

Too many Israelis are ignorant of the role played by US Jews (and also evangelical Christians) in helping to cover expenses for programs and activities aimed at a wide stratum of our society - from those who frequent the opera to those dependent on communal Seders.

THE ECONOMIC crisis notwithstanding, the top priority for America's estimated 6 million Jewish people is continuity. From a sociological perspective, Jewish affiliation in the 21st century is a matter of choice. Cohesion comes more naturally to those whose Jewishness revolves around religious observance and/or who look to Israel as the cultural center of their lives.

Some 47% of US Jews marry out. So there is an urgent need to anchor affiliated Jews within the community and entice others back.

All this requires, foremost, a vibrant leadership capable of raising funds and establishing coherent program and budgetary priorities.

The trouble is that the community has grown so hyper-pluralist that coherence doesn't come easy. There are too many organizations and there is too much competition for resources. No organization dares admit that it's superfluous. Rich people, along with just plain folk, can always be convinced to part with their money - sometimes for worthy causes and sometimes not. Moreover, as if by magic, "new" rich people come along to fill a void. Guma Aguiar, CEO of Leor Energy, has emerged as a major giver to Chabad-Lubavitch and to Nefesh B'Nefesh.

NO ONE knows when the global financial crisis will finally end. Nor can anyone tell the wealthy how to spend their money. Still, we would urge communally responsible philanthropists to focus their support on charities and causes that aid the broader community. When times are good no one begrudges an affluent person their philanthropic dalliances. But these are not ordinary times. And the needs of the many deserve priority.

In order for money to go where the community most needs it, Jewish benefactors ought to do a better job of communicating, coordinating and networking. This may require a willingness to partner with existing philanthropic structures.

Capital is accumulated in the free market, but prioritizing Jewish communal needs necessarily involves an element of collective decision-making.

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