David E. Bernstein

American Jewish philanthropy and continuity

How should American Jews concerned with the future of the American Jewish community allocate their money? By finding ways to make affiliation with the Jewish community more appealing.

Being actively Jewish in the U.S. is expensive: synagogue dues, JCCs, summer camps, kosher food and so on. But what if being part of the community provided access to the best value private schools, camps, and so on?

Let me begin with two stories. The first is about a family I know. The wife was a non-observant Jewish who married a non-religious Christian. They heard the local JCC had a good preschool, and it wasn’t too far away, so they enrolled their daughter there. In preschool, she became good friends with a girl from another, more Jewishly-committed, intermarried family. The second family decided to send their daughter to the local Jewish day school, and the girls were such good friends that the first family decided to follow suit. They also started to go to the local Jewish day camp together. So instead of best having a vague Jewish upbringing, the girl from the first family is closely tied to the Jewish community.

The second story is from when I was in law school. A classmate and I decided to start an organization that would allow students to receive credit for doing research for public interest groups. I asked one of my professors, to sponsor the organization. He predicted, correctly, it would be a failure. He told me, “if you want to start an organization to attract students start a law review instead. Why? Because every law school has several law reviews. Go with what you already know works, that you know there’s a strong market demand for.”

The point of the first story is that making a “Jewish choice,” even if for secular reasons like the objective quality of the Jewish choice, can have lifelong consequences in bringing marginal Jews into the Jewish community as active members.

The point of the second story is that while entrepreneurship and innovation can pay off big time, if you want to place your bets on what’s going to work, go with things for which there is already market demand. It’s a mistake to think you know better than the market what people want.

A combination of these two insights leads me to believe that those concerned with “continuity” should focus their philanthropic dollars on making the Jewish versions of things Jews already are willing to pay for the best, the least expensive, or preferably both.

Want to bring marginal Jews into the community? Many already pay for sleepaway camp, day camp, private school (in my area, 25% of Reform Jews send their children to private school according to a community survey), semesters abroad, vacations, and so on. Make sure there are Jewish options, and make sure that they are better, cheaper, or both than the corresponding secular or Christian options.

This has two advantages. First, since people are already paying out of pocket for such things, you know there is market demand. Second, since people are already paying for such things, you only need marginal dollars to encourage people to use the Jewish option. The downside, of course, is that some people who are now paying full price will instead take advantage of the subsidies. But overall, there are surely areas in which the expansion potential is so great for the Jewish option that you can have a huge net gain at relatively little cost.

This sort of strategy has already worked with Birthright and PJ Library. College kids want to go on vacation with other college kids? Give them a subsidized trip to Israel. Parents want to read books with their kids? Give them Jewish books. But there is room for improvement. For example, Jewish camps, day and sleepaway, are often (despite some philanthropic initiatives) more expensive and not clearly of better quality than secular camps. Jewish preschools are often the most expensive in an area (as they are in mine — the Jewish preschools we sent my children cost literally double what the local church charged). In many cities, Jewish parents send their kids to Episcopalian or Catholic private schools for want of viable Jewish options.

Some may be offended by the notion that we essentially have to bribe marginal Jews to affiliate with the community. But we are no longer in an era of “if you build it, they will come.” We’ve lost both the push and the pull. The push of anti-Semitism no longer drives Jews to the community. And the pull of religious and ethnic ties to Judaism has withered, as has the need to affiliate with any religious community as it has become socially acceptable to become a “none.”

The Jewish philanthropic community needs to think like marketers, and the most obvious way to lure Jews in is to make Jewish options more attractive than the alternatives, in terms of quality and price; in practice, the opposite is often the status quo.

And while I’m on the subject, here are two things the American Jewish community doesn’t need: more Holocaust memorials, and more endowed Jewish Studies chairs, many of which will go to far-left academics who despise both Israel and the mainstream Jewish community.

About the Author
David E. Bernstein is a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, where he teaches constitutional law and evidence. He is married to an Israeli and travels to Israel regularly.
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