Commentary Magazine


Jewish Giving

To the Editor:

I respect Jack Wertheimer’s writings on the Jewish community, but as a former executive of the Council of Jewish Federations, now retired, I feel I must point out some flaws in his article, “Politics and Jewish Giving” [December 1997].

To begin with, the decline in real dollars in annual United Jewish Appeal (UJA)-Federation fund-raising campaigns that he claims has occurred over the past five years is both of much longer duration and much less precipitous than he suggests. In fact, the most recent campaign was the first in years to show an increase greater than inflation. He also seems to suggest that annual contributions to UJA-Federation campaigns from 1939 to the early 1990’s peaked at $800 million, when actually there were two years when the regular campaign combined with Operation Exodus raised $1.2 billion.

In the article, Mr. Wertheimer directs his anger toward liberals for bypassing the needs of the total Jewish community in what he calls their ideological campaign to have donors give only to those organizations of which they, the liberals, approve. But the most flagrant practitioners of this Kind of parochial fund-raising are groups like the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza and right-wing American Jews who tried to delegitimize the Jewish National Fund for not allocating money across the “green line” marking the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel. And it was right-wing Israeli and American rabbis who, in the only such instance in Israel’s 50 years, lobbied the United States Congress against legislation advocated by the democratically elected government of Israel.

Yet in the end Jack Wertheimer and I probably agree on more things than we disagree on. I think we would agree, for example, that contributions to UJA-Federation fund-raising campaigns have risen or fallen in response to whether there was war or relative peace in Israel, and that the key problem of the system is its inability to develop an exciting moral equivalent to war and rescue. God willing, that will happen, and when it does, both Jack Wertheimer and I will applaud.

Donald Feldstein
Teaneck, New Jersey

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer’s concern for the balkanization of American Jewish charitable contributions is well-founded. Many members of the Jewish community are products of an American value system that often teaches the virtue of placing individual choice above community well-being and thus conflicts with traditional Jewish notions of charity.

Mr. Wertheimer also correctly states that the concept of selective giving is being used by some donors to punish the current Israeli government because of its positions on religious conversion, settlements, and the speed of peace negotiations. In other words, he is right on the mark when he states that the plea of some groups to direct donations only to organizations seeking to uphold “pluralism,” “democracy,” and the like is actually in the interest of furthering narrow ideological aims.

What is to be done?

First, we need to air Mr. Wertheimer’s thesis publicly. Then pulpit rabbis and Jewish communal leaders must preach and teach against holding back funds at the cost of Israel’s needs. Finally, we must have faith that there are enough American Jews—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular—who ultimately do care more for klal yisrael, the whole of the Jewish people, than for their individual agendas.

Teddy Zabb
New Rocbelle, New York

_____________

 

To the Editor:

The annual UJA-Federation fund-raising campaigns, as Jack Wertheimer maintains, may indeed be flat and, when inflation is taken into account, declining. But Mr. Wertheimer fails to take note of a remarkable new trend in charitable donations: the dramatic increase in gifts from Christians, particularly evangelicals, to help Israel and the Jewish people.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews recently had the opportunity to present the UJA with a 1997 gift of roughly $5.5 million, bringing our total contribution to that agency over the past three years to about $10 million. What is unique about these gifts is not only their size (ours was the largest single annual gift received by the UJA), but the fact that these funds were donated by tens of thousands of Christians.

While there are those in the Jewish community who remain skeptical of the motivation of Christians, particularly evangelicals, and seek to keep them at arm’s length, many others are recognizing that, by and large, these Christians are sincere, well-motivated people of faith.

[Rabbi] Yechiel Eckstein
International Fellowship
of Christians and Jews
Chicago, Illinois

_____________

 

Jack Wertheimer writes:

I am grateful for the thoughtful responses to my article. Donald Feldstein, a leading communal professional whose writings have informed my thinking on many issues, begins by noting that the most recent UJA fund-raising campaign showed an increase greater than inflation. But I specifically chose not to refer to the most recent campaign because the books are not yet closed on the sums collected. I also chose not to include data on “special campaigns” to resettle Jews in Israel because I was writing about annual campaigns that support the ongoing activities of agencies under the auspices of local federations of Jewish philanthropy.

Mr. Feldstein goes on to discuss a number of instances in which he claims groups on the Right acted as “the most flagrant practitioners of . . . parochial fund-raising.” It is not clear to me, however, that the criticism of the Jewish National Fund that he cites was more “flagrant” than the current ideologically driven assault on the United Jewish Appeal, which, in light of the UJA’s critical role in funding programs to aid endangered and impoverished Jews abroad, threatens to cause a great deal of harm to a great many Jews.

Mr. Feldstein also castigates American Jews “who lobbied the United States Congress against legislation advocated by the democratically elected government of Israel.” I assume he is referring to the opposition of some groups to the transfer of U.S. government funds to the Palestinian Authority. Such legislation may have been supported by the Israeli government, but should not American citizens who are Jewish have a right to speak out about how their tax dollars should be spent? I am also surprised that in his sweeping overview of the past half-century, Mr. Feldstein does not see fit to mention the efforts of American Jewish groups on the Left who for two decades worked to legitimize Palestinian terrorist organizations.

Still, Mr. Feldstein and I are in accord on the most crucial issue he raises: the challenge of rallying American Jews to support domestic needs with the same generosity and enthusiasm they displayed in earlier campaigns to aid Jews abroad. I also appreciate Teddy Zabb’s words of encouragement, and his endorsement of programs to benefit klal yisrael.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein draws attention to the contribution of some $5.5 million by Christians to federated campaigns. While this development is noteworthy, I am sure Rabbi Eckstein recognizes the fact that this sum represents only a tiny fraction of all giving to Jewish causes.

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