In Washington, the main Jewish communal body, the Federation, suffered two financial hits in recent years: once through the economic downturn and another through Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. But despite a 15 per cent drop in income, the community hardly felt a decline in services. The organisation cut salaries by 10 per cent and switched to a four-day work week.
“It’s a very challenging time, but we are finding creative ways to cope,” said the Federation’s CEO, Misha Galperin.
Washington’s story is not unique. As Jewish community leaders and professionals gathered this week for the annual meeting of their umbrella organisation — The Jewish Federations of North America — the economy was on everyone’s mind.
The Federation system is a loose network of communal bodies that combine all philanthropic work under one roof: fundraising, allocations, funding of social services and aid to Jewish overseas programmes. It is the backbone of the American Jewish community, but it is facing financial peril.
In 2009, American Federations raised $823 million in their annual campaign, down 11 per cent from the previous year. Across the country, hundreds of jobs were cut and services were downsized.
As communities kick off their annual campaigns this month, they expect another rough year, although some believe the tide is already turning.
“We have a Jewish frame for giving,” said Joe Kanfer, chair of the board of trustees, referring to the biblical command of giving 10 per cent of one’s income to charity. “If we focus on that we can do it.”
In the meanwhile, Federations are seeking new initiatives to deal with the shortage of funds and the wave of new Jews in need. In New York, seven new centres were opened to provide services for 6,500 Jews impoverished by the recession. In Chicago, a fund named J-Help was established for the same purpose.
A video to be shown countrywide in Federation fundraising events tells the story of a Jewish man who lost his job as a real estate appraiser and was about to lose his home. From a donor to the Jewish Federation, he became a recipient of their social services.
His story is meant to demonstrate the growing sector of Jews in need, beyond the Federations’ traditional targets: the elderly, children at risk, Holocaust survivors and Jewish programmes in Israel and the former Soviet Union.
Inspired by the Obama campaign’s success in attracting millions of small donors through the internet, Jewish communities are also trying to broaden the circle of online givers and welcome those who donate less.
But communal leaders are also aware that young Jews are giving less to Jewish causes.
Recent numbers show that only 15 per cent of contributions by younger Jews are given to Jewish philanthropies.
When asked to explain the phenomenon this week, mega-donor Michael Steinhardt, a founder of the birthright Israel trip, replied: “Just look in the mirror. Are we as Jewish as we’ve been?”
He argued that as the community becomes more integrated, its identification with Jewish causes declines, and so do donations.