Jewish Education and Jewish Philanthropy

There are 165 Jewish billionaires in the world. They are worth $812 billion. At least as of August of 2013 according to a Times of Israel article at that time. I don’t know if those numbers still hold today. If anything they probably increased.  But for arguments sake, let us stipulate that there is quite a bit of money in the hands of some Jewish people. In case you don’t know what a billion is – realize that 1 billion dollars equals 1000 million dollars. That’s 812 times 1000 million dollars in the hands of a few Jews. God bless them for their success (as long as the earned it honestly).

I bring this up in light of an oped by Jay Ruderman in JTA entitled: What Billionaires Owe the Jewish Community.  It begins with the following line: In the past decade, a new class of Jewish mega-givers has emerged, reshaping the Jewish philanthropic landscape.

Jay goes on to say  that there is no current method of accountability for where this money goes: Who gets it and how much. And that although philanthropists can give their donation to whomever they choose, they nevertheless have a responsibility as Jews to give money to those organizations that can help ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. And that there ought to be some sort of system that would offer transparency  and accountability.  It would be set up by them and for them. Not to limit how much they give or to whom. But to give them a better sense of responsibility.

I’m not sure they would agree to that. Indeed they are entitled to determine for themselves where they choose to give an how much. We each have our own priorities in life. Everybody has their pet charity. So agreeing to such transparency is unlikely. Nobody likes people looking over their shoulders. But I agree with the sentiment that it would serve the Jewish community well if there was transparency in philanthropic giving.

There are lots of legitimate charities in the world that deserve the large donations they get from these mega-givers. Surely feeding the hungry is a worthwhile cause, no matter where they are or what their religion – or lack of it – is. So too is funding research to end various diseases like cancer, ALS, and Alzheimer’s. All worthwhile causes that deserve their support.

But as Jews, I would hope that these Jewish billionaires feel a responsibility to perpetuate their Jewish heritage, too. No matter how religious or irreligious they are. Even if they are atheists hopefully they still feel that they are part of a people. That they belong to an exclusive club called ‘the Jewish people’ with its rich and glorious history. That even though persecuted throughout that history, they have managed to survive and flourish. And achieve great things in both the religious sphere and in the world at large. This is the ‘club’ to which they belong to which they ought to have a sense of responsibility to perpetuate.

As former Presidential adviser, Jay Lefkowitz put it when asked why he was observant, ‘I’m a Jet’. The Jets were a fictional gang in the play West Side Story. What he of course meant is that he had pride in belonging. Even if he had problems with some of Jewish theology.

My hope is that even a Jewish billionaire like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has stated that he is an atheist, still feels like a ‘Jet’. And that some of his billions go to persevere and perpetuate his ‘gang’.

When you have several billion dollars to give away, there should not be any problem supporting any institution you want. My hope is that these Jewish billionaires can be persuaded to divert some of that money be Jewish institutions whose goal is to preserve and perpetuate the Jewish people.

The most productive institutions in this regard are the religious days schools. Although they are by no means the only ones that do that, my firm believe is that Jewish education is the key to the Jewish future. Without it, short of Divine intervention Judaism would die. What better proof of that is there than the Pew Survey from last year. It showed that the only demographic in all of American Jewry that was growing, was the one where Jewish education was an integral part of it. Those denominations that could not convince parents to send their children to their religious schools are hemorrhaging Jews in increasingly accelerated numbers. They assimilate out of a Judaism they know very little about – or even care to.

Imagine if each of those 165 Jewish billionaires would give 1 billion each towards Jewish education.That could potentially solve the tuition crisis all by itself. Some of that money would go towards operational expenses and some of it would go towards endowment funds that could distribute significant sums money to all of the day schools perpetually.

There is not a doubt in my mind about the serious financial crises Jewish education now faces. As I have said many times (more than I can count) Jewish educational expenses are breaking the backs of most parents. Schools that offer a quality Jewish education cost a lot of money to operate. Good teachers demand good salaries. Good programs are expensive.

The cost per child to be educated in those schools  is beyond the ability of most parents with a typical family of 3 or 4 children (or more) to pay. The vast majority of parents are on at least a partial scholarship. Even some parents with six figure incomes today are struggling to meet their tuition obligations. Not to mention the fact that most parents do not make six figure incomes. Fund raising by school boards help. But very often a school falls short of its budget requirements. And then go into debt just to meet their financial obligations, most of which go to the dedicated teachers that work there.

There has to be a way to convince these Jewish billionaires to start supporting Jewish education in ways that they do other projects.  How often do I hear about a billionaire donating money to an alma mater, like Harvard. Harvard is indeed a very worthwhile institution to support. And I understand the concept of Hakoras HaTov – the gratitude someone wants to show to an alma mater.

But Harvard is one the most well endowed universities in the world. And yet a day school in New Jersey, a Yeshiva high school in Detroit, and a Yeshiva in Chicago each have to struggle just to pay their bills… and often they fall short. All while parents are struggling to meet their tuition obligations. Even the ones on scholarship assistance!

My message to those mega giving philanthropists that care about perpetuating their heritage is the following. Is it not worth considering putting more of your money into institutions that do that? …where it is most needed? …instead of simply padding an existing endowment fund of a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton?

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.