Friday, December 26, 2008

Who Will Save Jewish Charity?

This is a wonderful piece of writing. The writer, Lucette Lagnado,wrote a book that is very popular, both here at HWPL, and county-wide, The man in the white sharkskin suit : my family's exodus from Old Cairo to the New World.
The Madoff scandal has shaken the American Jewish community to its core – maiming institutions large and small, wiping out life savings and triggering soul-searching: How could one man deceive so many? And what does the affair say about American Jewish values?

Far too sweeping a statement, to lump all American Jews as one. Still, she starts off by quoting Jonathan Sarna, the prominent American-Jewish historian, defining the affluent Orthodox Jewish community where Madoff found so many victims, as "a kind of shtetl – a very wealthy shtetl."

Madoff has hurt so very many people and charities; even Henry Kaufman lost money. Still, who was really hurt, financially, anyway?

The pain is being felt especially intensely in philanthropic circles, which may never fully recover. Some Jewish nonprofits have shut down. Several large institutions, Hadassah and the American Jewish Congress among them, have been seriously wounded. Then there is the blow to the community's sense of self – the confidence and prosperity that enabled it to build magnificent houses of worship, Jewish day schools that rivaled the finest secular ones and, more recently, charities with impressively large endowments.

Prosperity; magnificent; rivaled; large endowments. These are words that speak of a sector of the community: affluent, elegant, fashionable, upscale.

For the past several years, Jewish nonprofits had been relying on "fewer – but larger – gifts," according to Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. United Jewish Communities, which represents 157 Jewish Federations across North America, has seen a steep decline in its ranks of donors in the past 20 years – even as the total funds raised have continued to grow.

Less people giving, more money raised. "Top end" donors were pursued, others neglected, maybe ignored.

There was so much wealth out there that it seemed more cost-effective than going after smaller donors.

Mega-donors gave mega-sums, had buildings or programs, let alone foundations, named after themselves, and rested smugly with a guilt-free conscience. Madoff has changed that, perhaps irrevocably, certainly fundamentally: if nothing else, trust has been damaged.

Jewish charity may have to return to its roots, becoming once again a widespread communal effort, instead of being concentrated in a few powerful hands.

I don't have a great solution to the Madoff problem or to the damage that it has wrought. I have a more limited suggestion: I would like to see the comeback of the pushke – the little collection box that was once in every Jewish home. To be sure, I don't want Jewish charities to suffer; it is simply that in our post-Madoff universe I find myself longing for the kind of more humble, more individual tzedakah, or personal charity, that took place before the rise of the uber-Jewish foundations and zillionaire philanthropists.

I've never heard either term, but I agree with her.

It would be lovely to see the return of little checks – the donations everyone could afford to give and often did. Neither they nor the pushkes require the fund-raising galas and the elaborate administrative structures that have become the norm across the Jewish charitable world.

Some Jewish leaders may blanch at my words. Prof. Wertheimer notes that "Jewish organizational life has become much more expensive – nickels, dimes and pushkes aren't going to do it." Though Mr. Kane at the UJA and others now hint at new strategies to broaden the donor base, some Jewish leaders are ready to return to business as usual, sending the message that we must get in some big checks to replace the money that was lost. But this scandal makes me wish we could remember the values of our shtetl and think small again.

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