The ethic of giving charity has long been ingrained in Jewish law and practice, and Jewish communities have rightly prided themselves on the generosity exhibited by its members in small and large ways.
And despite recent turbulence in world financial markets, there appears to be plenty of dollars still potentially available for tzedakah. But a 2003 study by researcher Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, reveals important and somewhat disturbing trends that will have a direct impact on how Judaism conducts its business in years and decades to come.
On the plus side, Tobin writes, Jewish individuals and organizations give away billions of dollars every year, and seem to do so disproportionately more than their numbers. But Tobin found that between 1995 and 2000 only six per cent of gifts given away by Jewish mega-donors went to Jewish causes. From 2000-2003, that figure dropped to five per cent. In 2006, despite the fact that four of America’s five biggest donors were Jewish, the vast majority of their money was left to non-Jewish causes. Robert Stanton’s $100-million gift to Yeshiva University was the sole super mega-gift (defined as $100 million and up) to a Jewish cause in 2006.
Tobin’s analysis of these developments is noteworthy: “Not only have Jews prospered economically, they are now able to prosper socially and politically and participate in every aspect of American society. All that is positive. The question becomes: How do Jewish organizations and causes effectively compete in that environment?”
Thus the struggle to integrate into the larger society has by and large been won, but the great ensuing irony is whether Jewish culture will get left behind financially. Naturally, there are still many people supporting many Jewish causes, but as any day school parent will be able to tell you, the cost of tuition is rising almost beyond the breaking point. Parents rightly expect quality for their money; teachers expect to be properly remunerated; but students aspire to well paying jobs and education is well down on their list. In this vicious cycle lies a problem for the future of Jewish schools. The struggles manifest themselves in all parts of the system: parents squeezed to pay for an education they do not always admire; teachers sometimes drained and burnt out with salaries that might not meet their own home budget; schools trying to cope with all of it and more.
Money is not the answer to everything, but if our community’s charitable giving became more targeted in the field of Jewish education, there is little doubt that we would see a brighter future for our children’s Jewish identity. Sometimes givers are not even aware of all of the opportunities. A case in point: as the director of York University’s Jewish teacher education program, I know that donors who give to scholarships for our Jewish teacher candidates will, above a certain level, have every one of their dollars matched by the Ontario government, which leads to a bittersweet but hopeful scenario. The same province that a year ago did not want to alleviate the tuition bill of Jewish parents will, ironically, help to support the future teachers of our children.