Why They Give: American Jews and Their Philanthropies.
by Milton Goldin.
Macmillan. 261 pp. $10.95.
Philanthropy in Judaism is not so much an individual as a collective project, and has become even more of one in recent American Jewish life. The federated Jewish philanthropies in this country, which have acquired greater and greater control over welfare, social-service, and Israel-related programs in the past decades, have also come to identify themselves as the chief public representatives of the Jewish community. Fund raising, the process by which financial resources are gathered for later disbursement, has become a key function of community organization, and successful Jewish men and women who also show a talent for soliciting funds are often accorded positions of honor within the ranks of the community’s lay leadership.
Given the magnitude of the sums involved, this practice is not so surprising. Following the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, the Jews of Washington, D.C., alone purchased $4 million in Israel Bonds; during that same year the United Jewish Appeal collected $250 million from America’s Jews. The figures in relatively small communities are no less staggering, especially when they are compared with the amounts raised citywide for general-purpose charities like the United Way. Thus, the Jews of Columbus, Ohio, a community of 16,000, raised $2.7 million in 1975 (an “off” year); in the same year, the United Way, drawing upon more than 900,000 persons, raised $7.2 million. While each Columbus resident contributed $8 to the United Way, each Columbus Jew averaged $169 to the United Jewish Appeal. It is no wonder, then, that the United Jewish Appeal has been called the “most successful nongovernmental money-raising organization in the world.”
Milton Goldin, himself a Jewish fund raiser, is fascinated by American Jewish philanthropy—more precisely, by American Jewish philanthropists, and more exactly still, by the “big givers of the Jewish establishment.” Although his brief book largely ignores the question raised by its title—“why they give”—it does present a mass of information about a handful of wheeler-dealers in the fascinating world of American Jewish giving.
Part One surveys the three waves of Jewish immigration to America—Spanish (18th century), German (19th century), and East European (late 19th and early 20th centuries)—and portrays the philanthropic activities of Jews already settled here as they responded to the newcomers and to the new land. We meet Sephardic philanthropic heroes in New York, Savannah, Newport, and New Orleans; great Yahudim (German Jews) like Gimbel, Seligman, Guggenheim, Strauss, Kuhn, Loeb, Schiff, and Marshall; and prominent Yidn (East European Jews) of New York. Utilizing for the most part published biographies, Goldin moves in this section of the book from one rich Jew to the next.
In contrast to Part One, which proceeds by portrait and anecdote, the final three chapters present a panorama of Jewish philanthropic activity. Although Goldin is still interested almost exclusively in New York and its Jewish elite, we witness the responses of American Jewish leadership to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, to the enormous despair among Europe’s Jews in the period of World War I, to the anti-Semitism of the 1920’s, to the Nazis, to the Zionist struggle in Palestine and the birth of Israel, and to the continuing dominance of Israeli needs up to the present. In these chapters Goldin draws largely on recent scholarly histories of American Jewish institutions and movements, as well as memoirs, and he tells an absorbing story, if one that may be somewhat confusing to the uninitiated.
The faults of the book are many. Goldin’s numerous anecdotes about the rich and his brief summaries of complex historical events are no substitute for the real data necessary to support his general statements. The opening chapters especially amount to a string of anachronistic generalizations and outright errors. Thus, “though big givers were rare” in the Colonial period, Goldin has them heading “fund-raising committees” and “tirelessly visiting prospective givers.” All German Jews are called Yahudim, a term of negative connotation which grossly oversimplifies the complexities of German Jewish society, stereotyping the members of this elite as “tight-lipped, thrifty, Reform, prosperous, assimilated, affluent, and influential.” The East European shtetl, on the other hand, is tediously romanticized à la Life Is With People. As for the portraits of the “big givers,” each is little more than a caricature.
A true tale of America’s Jews and their philanthropies this book, then, certainly is not—though by the time one has finished it, one has had his fill of the “Jewish 400,” of card calling (a Jewish invention), of meetings to decide on the proper allocation of funds, of the competition between Israel Bonds and the United Jewish Appeal, of the path taken by a UJA dollar, and of the endless round of testimonial lunches and dinners that is the lot of big-money fund raisers.
What is missing from the book, first, is any attention to the world of fund raising as it actually operates and any analysis of the way it is organized. To what extent, for instance, does the control of multimillion-dollar budgets by a score of wealthy men parallel similar developments elsewhere in American corporate life? Does the voluntary nature of philanthropy make it inevitable that an individual contributor or group of contributors, strongly identified with a cause or an agency, will have a pervasive influence over community decisions affecting that cause or agency? How does each generation or group of leaders pick its successors? How does it recruit, train, motivate, utilize, reward, and retain the volunteers who “sell” Jewish philanthropy?
A series of unconnected adventure stories such as those Goldin tells does not go very far toward explaining the inner world of American Jewish philanthropy. Continuity, so very difficult to maintain, requires not only survival but the constant winning of new adherents, evaluation of those already won, encouragement of new members to learn about the organizations and causes served, reduction of conflict, instillment of a sense of guilt deep enough to impel people to work toward goals, provision of intangible rewards (publicity, honors, fellowship, prestige, and a sense of personal pride in accomplishing goals), and a deepened understanding of what it is that is being pursued. When all the heroic givers are offstage, successful fund raising is hard work, very hard work; the sweat and toil are what we need to know more about.
What is also missing from Goldin’s treatment is an answer to the question, why do these Jews give? The two reasons offered in the three paragraphs devoted to this subject—recognition, and a desire to preserve Jews and Judaism—are unsatisfactory. The first is an insult; the second, though closer to the truth, needs to be elaborated upon. As a sometime observer of advance-gift ($10,000-and-over) meetings in two American Jewish communities, I myself have been struck by an almost religious atmosphere of guilt-and-atonement that seems to characterize such meetings, and by the solemn statements of identification with the historic fate of the Jewish people that often accompany the making of pledges.
The guilt is over having so much money and living so well, especially in the light of recent Jewish history; the note that is constantly struck is one of “were it not for a stroke of luck, I too might have been annihilated.” The pledge is a means of assuaging the guilt, but also of acknowledging and simultaneously overcoming (for a moment) the deeply felt vulnerability of the Jewish position in the world. The vocabulary of contribution, the symbols of transcendent purpose that are invoked in fund raising speeches, all return to these themes. UJA, Israel Bond dinners, and the rest may have become, as Goldin says, the “cornerstone around which Jewish life is organized” in the United States; but whatever else one may wish to say about them, they represent a genuine expression of unbreakable identification with the Jewish community, and a determination that its material welfare (from which all else follows) will continue to be provided for unto the coming generations.