Changing Ways:
The Changing Patterns of Jewish Philanthropy in America

In its earliest phases, Jewish philanthropic groups in America were constructed to address the needs and fulfill the obligations of the Jewish community. Tzedakah was given for the maintenance of Jewish ritual life, education of youth and providing for economically vulnerable Jews. During waves of immigration, many American Jews sent funds to relatives abroad both to assist them financially and to provide passage to America. In addition, American Jewish fulfilled their obligations to their co-religionists by contributing to settlement houses and immigrant aid societies. Poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe suffered exclusion from elite Jewish institutions because for both social and economic reasons. Despite this chasm between the relatively assimilated Jewish 'aristocracy' and the observant, impoverished immigrants, there remained a sense of kinship and obligation to help those in need.

Just as the distributors of tzedakah in traditional communities were responsible for identifying recipients and creating the criteria for distribution, American collectives faced the challenge of defining the priorities of the evolving communities. American fundraising organizations that were responsible for distributing funds had a central role in defining the values of the emerging American Jewish society. Founded in 1895, Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies is the oldest federated philanthropy setting the model for Federations across the country. Jewish tradition speaks to the idea that all wealth belongs to God and mankind must serve as stewards. The Federation system was built upon this value and echoed the biblical and rabbinic models of tzedakah collection, especially the kupah.

Patterns of Jewish giving in the twentieth-century were affected by the dynamics of history and sociological trends. Some of these factors include: the great depression, the founding of the state of Israel, the settling of World War II refuges, the increased interest in Jewish education and elevated ethnic pride are just a few of the forces that influenced giving. Taking care of one's own community remained a Jewish priority and was reflective of the patterns of other ethnic groups in America. Although Jewish organizations continue to receive generous contributions, the trend towards secular giving that emerged and accelerated in the later half of the twentieth century has many catalysts.

One of the primary reasons cited for the trend of Jewish giving to institutions outside of the Jewish community was the inclusion. When Jews were no longer barred from leadership of universities, hospitals and symphonies, they were enthusiastic to prove their commitment to these secular concerns. The decrease in antisemitic membership policies as well as antisemitic attitudes was met by a great enthusiasm for inclusion and assimilation from American Jewry. While Jewish involvement in upper-class culture was only accessible to the financial elite, the opening of doors to individuals of Jewish descent was of great symbolic value. Integration of middle-class Jews into civic groups and neighborhood associations continued to lead some members of the Jewish community away from involvement in both Jewish social groups and Jewish philanthropic organizations.

While involvement in secular organizations reflected a tendency towards assimilation, charitable giving was understood by some as an authentic reflection of Jewish identity. Providing for the needs of the poor is essentially a religious act, even if the money is sent to a church that provides social services. While tzedakah is an important mitzvah, it was also a mitzvah that did not require religiosity. Consequently, charitable giving allowed Jews, who felt removed from Judaism as a religion, to participate in giving as a 'Jewish pastime.' Individuals who were less associated with the Jewish community felt that they could express their Jewish values through giving to causes that spoke to them.

One potential sociological justification for to the increased giving to the non-Jewish poor was Jewish guilt for their acceptance into mainstream society. Middle class reality contradicted the engrained Jewish experience of poverty and marginalization. Just as this guilt is cited as a motivation for Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, empathy with the oppressed in the 'land of the free' is a potential reason for Jewish contributions to relieve poverty of all it's the nations inhabitants.

For Jewish immigrants of Eastern Europe, acceptance, freedom from government sanctioned violence and the opportunity to work in almost any industry was embraced with patriotism and appreciation. Generous financial contributions to civic organizations and 'American' causes were one way that Jewish Americans gave thanks to the nation. Beyond expressing gratitude, contributions to higher education, hospitals and the arts were also seen as a means of encouraging future Jewish acceptance. Even when overt antisemitism was shunned from polite society, there remained exclusion of Jews from certain social circles. By presenting large gifts, many Jewish philanthropists hoped to win over those who were still influenced by prejudice.

Jewish contribution to non-Jewish charities reflected both a religious and a social motivation to be positively involved with member of other communities. Having suffered from the consequences of Jewish isolation, philanthropy was one mechanism that Jewish leaders could serve as ambassadors of the Jewish people to important figures in society. On a smaller scale, Jewish giving to civic society reflected an attempt to feel authentically included and interwoven with the broader citizenry.

Recent trends in Jewish philanthropy mirror the greater trends of American philanthropy.
Just as the Federation annual campaign is playing a decreasing role in Jewish philanthropy, so too are fewer Americans giving to umbrella organizations such as the United Way. There is an increase in the growth of private foundations, and an increased interest in opportunities for targeted giving.

Another trend that affects both the Jewish and greater American community is the donation of multi million mega-gifts. Research by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research shows that while there are many Jewish individuals among these top givers, Jewish organizations are rarely the recipients of mega-gifts. Younger generations are proving to be to be more interested in contributions to specific social justice causes than to maintenance of existing cultural institutional. While the trend away from supporting the community is concerning to many institutions, it is a sing of the times, reflective of the contemporary interest in healing the world while serving as a 'light unto the nations.'

(Based on the research and writing of Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary)