A century of Jewish giving: Foundations in the Bay Area

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The Jewish community takes special pride in its tradition of tzedakah, through individual contributions and mitzvot, through the efforts of organized communal agencies that rely on community financial support and volunteer energies, and on a remarkable American institution: the charitable foundation.

These philanthropic organizations spring from both religious and secular settings. Organized Jewish communal or charitable life can be traced at least to the kehillah of the Middle Ages, the community synagogue which functioned as the contemporary equivalent of a community center, education bureau and family service agency.

Those who were fortunate enough to do so were expected to contribute a share of their well-being to help fellow Jews and meet communal needs. Other Jewish communal institutions emerged to provide specialized services, such as the chevra kadisha (burial society.)

The small group of Jewish settlers who came to California in the 1850s and who established the first synagogues also eventually provided infrastructure for organized charity and community self-help.

Before the end of the century the Eureka Benevolent Society was formed, helping the sick and needy, assisting Jewish immigrants in resettlement, and assuming some responsibilities for Jewish education and the establishment of Jewish communal traditions.

As the Jewish community grew, so did its needs. It was soon recognized that it would be efficient to conduct a unified fund-raising effort to support the proliferation of Jewish agencies in the community. In 1910 a Federation of Jewish Charities was established, including major institutions such as Mount Zion Hospital (which had been founded in 1887) as well as smaller organizations.

The Jewish Community Federation is the evolving long-term product of the same ethos of Jewish community responsibility and enterprise.

The early 20th century also saw the start-up of charitable foundations as we know them in the United States. The Industrial Revolution, while creating new wealth unimagined by the traditional aristocracies, also brought about compelling need in the fast-growing cities.

Most of the business tycoons (and robber barons) of the Gilded Age doled out charity through individual benefactions, often to colleges and universities, art museums and immigrant aid groups. Among the nouveau riche who constituted the emerging "donor pool" for these institutions were Jews such as Otto Kahn, a cousin of Jacob Schiff and Felix Warburg, who was invited to join the blueblood board of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and ended up being the largest shareholder in that organization.

The adoption of the federal income tax, by ratification of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, gave impetus to more organized, collective and legally-protected philanthropy. It is no coincidence that the American charitable foundation movement began to flower about the same time. Such venerable foundations as Russell Sage, Carnegie and the Cleveland Community Foundation trace their origins to 1913-15.

Some of the earliest foundations had Jewish donors but have not distinguished themselves by a prominent commitment to Jewish causes or organizations. The Solomon Guggenheim Foundation is an example of this type, having earned its reputation from its fellowships and the art museum in New York.

Other Jewish foundations of the 1920s and 1930s, such as those founded by Mary Lasker or Julius Rosenwald (a founder of Sears Roebuck), played important roles in the development of higher education, art and culture, and the early civil rights movement. These and other early Jewish-founded philanthropies, such as the Fleishmann Foundation, were not necessarily desired by their donors to be perpetual institutions, and were terminated after a certain period.

Foundations are a distinctive type of Jewish philanthropy, ranging from thousands of smaller, local, family foundations throughout America to larger organizations with regional, national and international interests.

As foundations are usually established to convert private capital to public or community purpose, Jewish philanthropy is equally impressive whether one examines what Jewish altruism does for our own people, or whether such resource and energy is directed towards non-Jews and the larger community.

Indeed, the extent of Jewish philanthropy of all kinds far exceeds any demographic "quota" that could possibly be computed. Jewish populations in the Bay Area, throughout the nation and elsewhere in the world contribute to and sustain charitable organizations to an enormously disproportionate degree compared to the general population.

For example, in the Bay Area, where a demographic study revealed that about 4 percent of the population is Jewish, at least 12 percent of the foundations listed as members of the Northern California Grantmakers have been established by Jews.

Most of these have both strong Jewish communal funding interests while also investing significantly in the general, non-Jewish community.

In the Bay Area literally thousands of nonprofit organizations are supported by Jewish foundations. These include a wide range of groups addressing community needs in areas such as health and social services, education and training, youth and families, affordable housing and community development, arts and humanities, medical research, civil rights and social action, environment, transportation, and criminal justice.

Jewish foundations also often participate or lead the way in large public campaigns, such as for important civic facilities. A recent example would be the new San Francisco Main Library, or the new S.F. Museum of Modern Art, each of which received tens of millions of dollars from local Jewish foundations.

In earlier eras Jewish contributions built the Steinhardt Aquarium and Fleishhacker Pool in San Francisco. Facilities on Bay Area campuses at Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, University of San Francisco and the University of Santa Clara and bear the names of Jewish contributors, such as Stern, Swig and Koret.

A list of the more well-known Bay Area private and corporate foundations funded by Jewish donors would include, in alphabetical order: Columbia Foundation, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Miriam and Peter Haas Fund, Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Koret Foundation, Louis R. Lurie Foundation, Bernard Osher Foundation, Rosenberg Foundation, Levi Strauss Foundation, Morris Stulsaft Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Fund.

There are also several dozen medium and small family foundations in the Bay Area, as well as Jewish donors who provide significant support for community foundations such as the San Francisco Foundation and the Marin Community Foundation.

Any discussion of Jewish foundation philanthropy should particularly acknowledge the prominent role of the Haas, Goldman, Koshland and Russell families.

Descendants and beneficiaries of Levi Strauss, a pioneer of the gold rush era, they have generously shared the good fortune which has flowed from the world's largest maker of apparel. The aggregate worth of the present and future value of their combined foundations is estimated to be in the billions.

The Haas family has been especially active in support of higher education. For example, Common Cause founder and former cabinet secretary John Gardner is the Miriam and Peter Haas professor of public policy at Stanford, while the School of Business at U.C. Berkeley is named after a family patriarch, the late Walter Haas Sr.

Another significant family contribution has emerged in the field of protecting the environment. The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation has captured the attention and imagination of the grantmaking community with the Goldman Environmental Prize, a substantial monetary award presented annually to each of six environmental heroes on the six continents.

In her later years Rhoda Haas Goldman devoted her formidable philanthropic energies and leadership to developing this program, which has in only a few years earned the sobriquet of the "Nobel Prize for the environment." (Incidentally, another Jewish foundation award, the Pritzker Prize, has a similar unofficial stature as the "Nobel Prize for Architecture.")

Another "major player" on the local Jewish foundation scene is the Jewish Community Endowment Fund (JCEF), which provides a home for family funds and endowments, sometimes called "supporting organizations" because they provide benefit to the Jewish Community Federation.

JCEF now houses some 424 philanthropic funds and 21 supporting organizations with a total endowment of almost $280 million. In 1994-95 JCEF made almost $18.5 million in grants to the Jewish and general community in this country and around the world, especially in Israel.

One of the important achievements of the JCEF has been to attract smaller family foundations which had previously operated autonomously.

The federation umbrella offers economies of scale, continuity and programmatic bonds with the organized Jewish community. In recent years such well-known families as Swig and Osher have established foundations in the Jewish Community Endowment, while older family charities such as the Newhouse Fund and the Eva Heller Cohn Helping Fund, have actually become part of the Endowment Fund to preserve their original purposes.

The JCEF may be thought of as the community's "long-term savings account," whereas the Federation's annual campaign provides the community's operational checking account. JCEF offers seed money for new programs and capital projects, and helps respond to emergencies and windows of opportunity.

Grants from the JCEF have provided support for Jewish community leadership in facing the challenges of the AIDS epidemic, resettlement of East European emigres, and such projects in Israel as development towns, schools and day care centers.

Seed grants from the JCEF have also enhanced the educational and cultural resources of the Bay Area Jewish community. An outstanding current example is the Endowment's support of a new Jewish Studies Program at San Francisco State University.

The JCEF, under the leadership of Phyllis Cook, also convenes a Foundation Advisory Council of private foundations, supporting foundations, donors and professionals who make significant philanthropic grants in the Jewish community.

The Jewish Community Endowment Fund provides one scenario for the future of many Jewish foundations and large-scale philanthropy. By pooling resources, Jewish donors will be able to leverage their support for diverse community causes.

While individual Jewish foundations will no doubt continue to exist and operate for the community's good, endowment-style configurations are likely to become increasingly attractive because of their contributions to efficient fund investment, administration and distribution.

Another issue bearing upon the future of Jewish foundations is the oft-cited "intergenerational transfer" over the next 10 to 20 years of trillions of dollars of private wealth.

Waldemar Neilsen, author of 'The Big Foundations" (1972) and "The Golden Donors" (1985), has estimated that literally hundreds of new mega-foundations, each containing assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars or more, will be created and that a significant proportion of these will be established by Jewish individuals and families.

Several of these are likely to find their home in the Bay Area and Northern California.

Furthermore, changing needs and circumstances are likely to be reflected in shifting goals and priorities over time for local Jewish foundations.

While all these philanthropies have diverse interests, when a crisis confronts the Jewish community, at home or abroad, they have often stood together — as they did in rescuing millions of Jews in "Operation Exodus."

In fact, to put it in a larger context, the Bay Area is one of several regions where Jewish private and family foundations are flourishing. Other communities with major Jewish philanthropies include New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Baltimore.