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American Jewish philanthropy today needs a ‘yes, and’ approach

By Barry Finestone. Originally posted on ejewishphilanthropy.com

We are in the immediate wake of the most significant Jewish event of our lifetime. Jews all over the world will from now on mark time as everything before Oct. 7, 2023 versus everything after Oct. 7, 2023.

Still in the sheer horror of the moment, Jewish philanthropy — individual donors and foundations alike — are supporting Israel to an unprecedented degree. This is exactly what we should be doing, but it is not the only thing we should be doing.

Our actions in this moment will have a lasting impact, for better or worse, on the American Jewish community. Right now, the Jewish philanthropic community must have a “yes, and” approach toward funding. Yes, we absolutely need to support Israel and Israelis. We need to contribute mightily to the multitude of needs Israel has — for the orphans, the evacuees, the businesses whose employees are now on the front lines, the mental health of the traumatized. All of these causes need our philanthropic support.

But unless philanthropy steps up in the U.S. as well, there is a genuine chance that much of the organizational structure we have spent generations building will be stretched to its limits. The structure is holding for now, but I am looking more long term over months and perhaps years as this war continues. There are very real risks that could break our community.

The need for increased philanthropy in this moment is great in order to address key areas:

  • Increased security, safety and mental health support for Jewish organizations’ staff and participants.
  • Staffing shortages at organizations that depend on employees living in Israel. This includes the Israel offices of American organizations, and Israeli workers who help sustain Jewish experiences here (e.g., Jewish overnight camps rely heavily on Israeli counselors and staff, and recruitment for these positions ordinarily occurs in November and December).
  • Staffing shortages here in North America as professionals say “enough” of emergencies and the mass stress they bring.
  • Effective responses to requests from Jewish organizational leaders, educators, curriculum content developers, parents, youth and young adults who need to communicate and educate about what is happening and how to talk and teach about it.
  • Disruptions to educational programs that involve travel to/from Israel.
  • Fundraising needs for organizations whose philanthropic supporters are diverting resources to the much-needed aid and assistance for Israel.

These needs are both immediate and will remain for some longer period of time. Our synagogues, day schools, JCCs, social services, our people and our institutions are the beating heart of Jewish life outside of Israel. Now more than ever, we must give and give generously to cement their continued existence, so that they may cement ours. If we don’t, we risk losing a generation of North American Jews due to fear, shrinking Jewish engagement offerings and lack of Jewish professionals equipped with resources and training to do their job effectively.

This is a moment to dig deeper than we ever have for Jewish-related philanthropy, and we need to give more than ever by a large factor. The time is now. The need is urgent.

Continue or start giving to Israel.

Continue or start giving to the North American Jewish community.

This may mean giving less to other worthy causes (e.g., hospitals, museums) that are not in dire need or in a crisis. Instead, direct that money to needs in Israel, to your local Jewish day school, JCC, Jewish camp and Jewish student organizations. There are countless other very worthy Jewish options from which to choose.

In this moment of despair, I remain intentionally hopeful. “Hatikvah,” literally “The Hope,” defines the Jewish people and the story of Israel. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, juxtaposes optimism with hope as a call to action: “Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.”

We must continue to hope. Each of us can be Jewish philanthropists to actively make our situation better. We, the Jewish people, need all hands on deck, and we need each other for the long haul. Generations from now, I envision a thriving North American Jewish community, along with a thriving Israel. Both of those will come to fruition, but only if we hope and act.

Barry Finestone is President and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation.