Jewish Giving: Keep the Faith Alive

Understanding the Middle East

Given the challenges currently facing America, Jewish philanthropy should have another distinctive feature as it addresses universal issues. While the War Against Terror currently being waged by the United States and its allies is a military and police operation, it also has an informational component. In order to win this war, we must understand the nature of the enemy we face and the internal reasons driving fundamentalist Islam to attack us. Colleges and universities can play an important role in helping students as well as the broader community to understand the issues involved. Unfortunately, departments of Middle East studies often focus narrowly on issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and many primarily teach theories that blame the West, particularly America and Israel, for Arab grievances. In recent years, a few Jewish philanthropists have begun to respond energetically to the war of ideas against Israel by providing funding for both academic and extracurricular programs that present a more balanced picture of Israel, its achievements, and its challenges. But the modest efforts to date have done little to change the overall thrust of the Middle East departments.

Having gained some experience with the situation on campus, Jewish philanthropists should now join with other interested funders first to systematically and rigorously examine the Middle East departments at American universities in order to ascertain the breadth and balance of the education provided. Then, as needed, this coalition of philanthropists should work to expand the Middle East departments to ensure that the scholarship and leadership produced by these departments provide America with the range of information and perspectives needed for the 21st century. This philanthropic effort will take persistence and courage against opponents who argue that any attempt to influence the campus classroom is an un-American attack on free speech. The Jewish community has shown its spine against these arguments in the past few years, and there is reason to hope that a coalition of philanthropists, Jewish and non-Jewish, will ultimately succeed.

Revitalizing Jewish Education

As we noted earlier, only a small proportion of Jewish philanthropy currently flows to Jewish causes. Since nearly half of even this limited amount is sent abroad (much of it to Israel), the resources available for Jewish needs in America are minimal. If Jews today were more literate in their own traditions and more successful in transmitting Judaism to future generations, then the meagerness of charitable contributions for Jewish religious life, especially Jewish education, would not matter as much. Sadly, the needs dramatically exceed the available funding.

Consider the recent history of Jews in America. Most American Jews are descendants of immigrants who reached these shores between 1880 and 1940. Arriving with little but the clothing on their backs and with limited command of English, these immigrants set about successfully assimilating into American life. From an educational, professional, and economic perspective, Jews have succeeded to an extraordinary degree. But success came at a price.

In their efforts to assimilate, many Jewish immigrants let go of their distinctive language and religious traditions, forsaking not just the Sabbath and kosher food but also serious Jewish education for their children. The result, now that we have third- and fourth-generation Americans from these immigrant families, is a Jewish community that consists of an inner core that is Jewishly knowledgeable and observant, while the majority of American Jews, though proud of their Judaism, are deeply ignorant, unable to read Jewish texts in their original Hebrew or articulate the distinctive contribution that Judaism offers to the world. The People of the Book have forgotten their Book.

If the Jewish civilization remains important to Jews and to the larger world, then Jewish literacy should become a greater priority. Fortunately, there is evidence that at the grass roots level more American Jews are showing interest. Jewish day schools, summer camps, Israel trips, youth groups, and adult education programs are all growing, if slowly. The enrollment trajectory is more problematic in the afternoon or Sunday school programs, which still provide the limited Jewish education that most American Jewish children receive, but there are pockets of energy and programmatic improvement in these schools, too. All told, the costs of the Jewish educational system are estimated at over $3 billion annually (mostly raised through tuition fees), and more will be needed to enhance the system to ensure that the offerings are both appealing and affordable.

Jewish philanthropy should re-prioritize, putting much greater resources and energy into Jewish education. While there are enclaves of high-quality Jewish educational programs, it will take a massive infusion of energy, talent, and money to transform the existing system into a network of first-rate educational institutions. The needs include updating the goals and curricula of the programs, ensuring a flow of well-trained leaders and faculty, and bringing costs to affordable levels. Small examples of progress in each area already exist.

12/18/2009 5:00:00 AM
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