Poll: Richest U.S. Jews give mostly to non-Jewish causes

In his 74 years, Arthur Sackler made a fortune in medical book publishing and amassed a collection of rare art and sculpture.

In 1999, his family foundation gave $100 million to the Smithsonian Institution, where an Asian art gallery bears Sackler's name.

That extraordinary donation was among the top handful of 188 "mega-gifts" of $10 million or more that the nation's 123 wealthiest Jews handed out between 1995 and 2000, amounting to $5.3 billion.

But while the country's wealthiest Jews may be generous philanthropists, few of their biggest gifts go to Jewish causes, a new study shows

The study comes as Jewish institutions are struggling to fund a multitude of causes amid a weakened economy. And it raises questions — and some debate — over why so many major Jewish philanthropists are overlooking Jewish causes.

The report by the Institute for Jewish Community & Research in San Francisco found that of the $5.3 billion that major Jewish philanthropists dispersed — 22 percent of the $29.3 billion in big-ticket giving overall — only $318 million went to Jewish institutions.

The $318 million, transmitted through 18 mega-gifts, accounted for nearly 10 percent of all philanthropy to Jewish causes during that period, including to Jewish federations.

Compared with the amount of Jewish money non-Jewish charities received, the Jewish community got "virtually nothing" from Jews, said Gary Tobin, president of the institute and an author of the study.

"There is clearly a huge disconnect between the major donations and the Jewish community."

Tobin released the study in San Jose this week at the international conference of the Jewish Funders Network, which serves as the unofficial umbrella for family foundations and independent philanthropic ventures operating outside the organized Jewish federation system. The four-day event was held at the Fairmont Hotel.

According to Tobin's study, most mega-gifts from Jews and non-Jews — 80 percent — were distributed in the areas of education, health, and arts and culture.

Gifts to higher education — nearly $2.6 billion, 61 percent of all Jewish gifts — were consistent with the trend in philanthropy in general. Fifty-six percent of mega-gifts from all philanthropists went to colleges and universities.

Some of those gifts went to Jewish institutions of higher learning, including the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Judaism, Brandeis University and Yeshiva University.

The findings raise many questions for those who are involved in Jewish philanthropy.

Tobin cautioned that the study does not say the Jewish community is philanthropically unhealthy.

After all, the annual North American federation campaigns totaled more than $900 million and Jewish family foundations gave $2 billion in grants last year.

Perhaps the biggest mystery, Tobin said, is what motivates major Jewish philanthropists to ignore their own community.

Philanthropies are supposed to "connect" Jewish donors to causes, he said, but "something's wrong with the facilitators," he said, referring to Jewish institutions.

Tobin's report suggests the need for follow-up studies to explore those issues more deeply. He said he has already begun interviewing philanthropists — Jews and non-Jews — about their giving habits.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a co-author of the study along with the institute's Alex Karp, said one problem could be "structural" — that Jewish institutions are not designed to capture higher-end donations.

When it comes to seeking high-end gifts for Jewish communal needs, Solomon posed a basic question: "Are we asking?"

Mark Charendoff, executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network, put the onus on Jewish organizations and institutions to convince the big donors to give — and to give more.

"The two biggest challenges the Jewish community has vis-a-vis funders is inspiration and trust — it can't be one or the other; it's got to be both," he said.

And in this rocky economic climate, he said, Jewish institutions must approach givers with solid business plans.

"More and more, people are looking at major charitable" efforts as "investments and not gifts," he said.

Brian Gaines, executive director of the S.F.-based Joshua Venture, which funds young Jews launching innovative programs, said he has succeeded in winning support from such mega-givers as Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation; the Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and the Bronfmans' fund.

Still, he said, "people are concerned about their money, and rightly so. They want to see results, they want to see impact."

Claire Ellman of La Jolla, whose family launched the Jeremiah Foundation, which focuses on Jewish day school education as a vehicle for Jewish survival, says much bigger challenges lie ahead.

Mega-donors such as the Bronfmans and Michael Steinhardt are "the old guard" of givers who represent a generation that is expected to transfer an estimated $1 trillion to $3.5 trillion to the next generation in the coming years.

"Younger funders are not so committed to Jewish education" and other Jewish issues, Ellman said. "Who's going to fund the Jews if the Jews don't?"