A crisis for Jewish philanthropy may force unpalatable choices

The shutting down of the global economy could lead to a devastating drop in charitable giving and lead to a necessary winnowing of organized Jewish life.

American Jewish groups at work. Credit: Moshe Milner, GPO.
American Jewish groups at work. Credit: Moshe Milner, GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first deadly contagion to ravage the globe, but it is clearly the first that modern nations have sought to combat by essentially shutting down public life and much of their economies. While most of us may have initially thought that this necessary effort would be of short duration earlier in the month, few are still laboring under the illusion that things will soon be back to normal.

But whether we emerge from this hiatus from our normal lives within a few weeks or a few months, it’s clear that the economic impact of this effort to avert a public-health catastrophe will be severe.

This stark fact will have many unintended consequences that will only be made clear to us over the course of the coming weeks and months. One that ought to be already painfully obvious is that the organizations, institutions and infrastructure of the Jewish community are now about to undergo a challenge that will likely alter the landscape of the organized Jewish world.

Organizational and philanthropic offices are closed, as are synagogues, Jewish community centers and schools. If this crisis lasts into the summer, the same will be true of the summer camps that play such a large role in Jewish life.

How many will be able to keep paying all of their employees under these circumstances? Some institutions will manage to keep going. Others, such as those that depend on fees from members, like JCCs, for services like gyms and programs that are no longer operating are not in the same position. The same applies to the many museums that have sprung up around the country in recent decades and which depend in part on visitors who are no longer coming.

More to the point, the individuals and families who keep the doors of such places open may not be in a financial position to keep using them if they are thrown out of work or have their incomes curtailed by the impact of pandemic.

Some Jewish institutions have ample financial reserves. Still, the pressure on them—as well as the natural impulses and belief in Jewish values on the part of their leaders—will be to draw upon those reserves in order to keep paying salaries even when no money is coming in, as well as to devote even more of their resources to helping those in need elsewhere in the community.

The knee-jerk answer to all of the Jewish world’s problems is always going to be philanthropy. And while many generous donors will step up to help, a good number of them of them may no longer be in position to do so after the recent coronavirus-induced carnage on Wall Street and the similar devastation in many sectors of the economy.

And even those who will still be wealthy enough to be insulated from the damage the virus is doing to the nation’s finances will be asked to help the many non-Jewish causes that also have a claim on their sympathies. That includes not just organizations that have been brought to the brink by the national shutdown that are heavily reliant on art-, music- and theater-loving Jewish donors. It also means that overburdened hospitals and other emergency-responder outlets whose resources are being stretched to the limit by the crisis and desperate for more funding will likely be treated as a greater priority by many, if not most, charitable givers who also care about Jewish life.

While some Jewish organizations and facilities may be able to get some of the state or federal aid that will pour into communities in the coming year, a good deal will not—or at least not receive enough to make a difference.

Jewish institutions are going to have to adapt to the new world that has made virtual connections with members and donors a necessity, rather than an option. And if the recession already upon us turns into something worse as the weeks of the shutdown turn into months, even the most nimble and creative Jewish groups seeking to reinvent themselves may find themselves running out of money sooner rather than later.

Under these unusual circumstances, contemplating such a scenario is not so much a worst-case scenario as it is realism.

That means those who care about Jewish life must be thinking now about more than how to raise and spend more money to deal with a future unprecedented emergency, even another pandemic. They must also begin planning for an era in which communities must start making choices about which groups and services are essential and must be preserved, and which should not be sustained in a post-coronavirus world.

Given the Jewish community’s reliance on consensus-driven decision-making, that will be difficult (if not impossible) for many groups. Even the most forward-thinking umbrella philanthropies like federations often lack the will to make choices that inevitably offend or hurt some of their stakeholders. While some things—like basic social services for the poor—cannot be cut, other tough conclusions involving the consolidation of institutions will have to be made.

If hard times breed hard decisions for the Jewish world, it will be up to their professionals and lay leaders to be willing to weather the flack they will inevitably take by sticking to communal priorities like education over the desire to keep non-essential institutions, like museums, open. There won’t be anything pleasant about what may amount to a forced winnowing of Jewish life. But in an environment where already scarce Jewish resources become diminished, such moves will probably be a necessity.

The notion that the landscape of Jewish institutions can simply be preserved as it was prior to this crisis may not be realistic or viable. If so, then it will be up to Jewish leaders to tell their communities and donors the hard truth about this sooner rather than later.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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