Resource Library

Reflections on Contemporary American Jewish Philanthropy

Resource Library

Reflections on Contemporary American Jewish Philanthropy

Insights Article

Written By: Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, Ph.D.

This February marked an important milestone for the study of Jewish philanthropy, as the Lilly School of Family Philanthropy wrapped up the first standalone academic course probing American Jewish giving. While Jewish Americans have often ranked highest among religious groups for their levels of philanthropic giving, the interest in understanding contemporary Jewish philanthropy and its components has been relatively scarce. The new course explored American Jewish philanthropy as a cultural, faith-based, and ethnic practice is both part of a American philanthropy and, at the same time, distinct from it. 

In past months, questions about the roles and responsibilities of philanthropy in meeting the social and racial disparities exacerbated by the pandemic have risen across various sectors of the population. In this spirit, we set out to study the unique ethos of Jewish giving that has grown over time as the community itself has transformed and responded to injustice. Through the course, we learned the importance of the unique philanthropic practices developed by American Jews, reflecting upon their cultural tradition and immersion into the American way of life. Focusing on a contemporary view of American Jewish philanthropy, we studied the complex re-granting activity and the exponential growth of conduit organizations that mediate giving to local needs and international organizations.

Exploring American Jewish philanthropy and Jewish causes in class allowed for a new perspective to our understanding of Jewish donors and recipients, organizations and leadership, and in particular, the role of American Jewry as a progressive and responsive philanthropic community supporting innovation.

We explored current trends and changes in Jewish giving and the effect of that ecosystem on ethnic and religious giving patterns by Jewish organizations and individuals. We sought to gain a better understanding of Jewish giving to Israel as well as the changes over time in attitudes toward Israeli social issues. We reviewed methodological challenges in studying and mapping Jewish philanthropy. And we explored Jewish giving and its characteristics in times of emergency and crisis.  

Although the latter is a topic that is part of the essential elements of Jewish charitable giving, it proved well-timed to establish how American Jewish giving reflected the core values of Jewish philanthropy in 2020. We discussed new data from my recent study about the response of Jewish philanthropies to the challenges posed by the pandemic to American and global society, providing more than $1.09 billion to local needs and directing the majority of those funds outside of the Jewish community to needs across communities in the US and globally.

Recent giving trends show that the organized Jewish community is sustaining its philanthropic tradition during the pandemic, supporting charitable causes based on need and not on affinity. Since March 2020, the largest Jewish family foundations, community foundations, federations, and nonprofit organizations have contributed a substantial share of global giving toward causes surrounding COVID-19, constituting nearly 5% of all giving to Covid19 globally. Although the largest givers to the Jewish community remain the Jewish Federations through their efforts to coordinate community relief funds, it is mostly private foundations that have spearheaded giving to non-Jewish causes and to causes in Israel. These foundations were responsible for over 80% of funds pledged to support pandemic driven needs.

The recent study aligned with many of the core themes covered in our Contemporary Jewish Philanthropy course, emphasizing that Jewish philanthropy and grantmaking is motivated by universal values of repairing the world (tikkun olam – תיקון עולם), social justice (tzedek – צדק חברתי), kindness (chessed – חסד), and tzedakah (צדקה), seeking to better society as a whole. It revealed the layers of Jewish giving as ethno-religious, composed of multiple elements of religious, ethnic, secular, cultural, and national traditions and habits of giving.  

Piece by piece, Jewish philanthropy initiatives have been constructed as part of American charitable giving. As stated in Isaiah,

“וַיִּלְבַּ֤שׁ צְדָקָה֙ כַּשִּׁרְי֔ן” (ישעיהו נ”ט, י”ז)

“And he put on charity as a coat of mail” (59:17)

Such is our approach to studying contemporary American Jewish giving, as an enduring collective effort that as a whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and one that makes up an important part in the American social justice shield.

Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, Ph.D., is the Deputy Director US at the Ruderman Family Foundation and a Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Associate Faculty at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. 

Expanded Perspective: Greater than the Sum of the Parts

Written By: Melissa Spas

Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim’s thoughtful reflection, her study of American Jewish Philanthropy, and the organization of her recent course for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy all highlight the complexity of religious giving, with layers of motivation, impact, and meaning.

Philanthropy, like religious practice, is multifaceted and contextual, and while the impulse to simplify might be appealing, there is much to learn from exploring the variety of dimensions, as Dr. Shaul Bar Nissim has done. 

First, understanding the religious values underpinning Jewish philanthropy can provide a framework for the particular motivations of different expressions of giving. Repair of the world, social justice, kindness, and charitable giving function to drive different organizations and expressions of giving. The significance of these religious values as organizing principles for giving activity, at the individual and corporate level, cannot be undervalued. Dr. Shaul Bar Nissim points out the way in which values and priorities of religious meaning direct the charitable priority as well, focusing giving on need, rather than on affinity, particularly in times of crisis. 

This leads to impact – religiously motivated giving that extends far beyond the Jewish community, as Dr. Shaul Bar Nissim’s study shows. Through re-granting, as accomplished through Federation giving, and through other mediating organizations, Jewish giving has developed in a uniquely American way, for effective impact, addressing community needs and enabling donors to make a real difference through responsive, organized means of collective action. The scale of Jewish contribution to the COVID-19 pandemic response is indicative of this emphasis on responsiveness and impact to meet real need – Dr. Shaul Bar Nissim reports that $1.09 billion was directed from American Jewish philanthropies to explicitly address COVID-19 impact. Of those contributions, 61% was pledged to non-Jewish causes – emphasizing the focus on addressing need, rather than prioritizing affinity, in this case.   

Finally, making meaning about philanthropy is a natural component of religiously motivated giving, and the emphasis on making a difference is particularly salient when the emphasis is on practice, and how that practice can shape our lives, rather than on a narrowly-focused religious emphasis. The motivations themselves become significant foci for meaning-making, particularly in light of scripture, and the intersection of culture, context, and religiously-formed patterns for giving. 

I’m appreciative especially of the reminder that philanthropy, lived out in this way, can add up to more than the sum of its parts, with the diversity of the whole American Jewish philanthropic enterprise amounting to more than any of its individual expressions alone. This view offers encouragement to all of those who engage in religiously-motived giving, focused on impact; the most meaningful expressions of religious philanthropy may be found in the collective expression, rather than in individual action. 

DATE: February 23, 2021
TOPIC: Research and Scholarship
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Judaism, Religious Giving
AUTHOR: Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, Melissa Spas