Suzanne Felson on San Francisco, who is a member of the Jewish Future Pledge advisory board, helping build a friend's sukkah.
Suzanne Felson on San Francisco, who is a member of the Jewish Future Pledge advisory board, helping build a friend's sukkah.

Who’s pledging to bequeath 50% to Jewish causes? These people are.

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A Jewish donor or philanthropist may support many causes — but will they commit to leaving at least half of their estate’s charitable dollars to support the Jewish people and/or the State of Israel?

That’s the goal of the Jewish Future Pledge, a movement launched two years ago that has amassed more than 9,000 signers worldwide, including a number of Bay Area residents.

Inspired by the Giving Pledge, which Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates introduced in 2010 for America’s wealthiest philanthropists, the Jewish Future Pledge reaches out to people of any income. It’s “for everyone,” the website notes, “whether you plan to leave $10 or $10 million to charity.”

Co-founded and funded by Georgia philanthropist Mike Leven, the Jewish Future Pledge launched in February 2020. “We don’t take any money,” explained executive director Josh Schalk.

Nor does the pledge lock anybody into doing anything. Rather, it represents a moral commitment by those who sign up: Of the money allotted to charity upon one’s death (separate from what goes to family and companions), at least 50% would go to Jewish causes of the person’s choice.

“We will see [how it works] over the next 20 years,” Schalk said. “As long as the money is going to a Jewish cause, we’re happy.”

Quick to partner with the initiative were the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish National Fund. Each set up webpages dedicated to the pledge, which read, in part: “Over the next 25 years, a mind-boggling $68 trillion will transfer to the next generation, with $6.3 trillion allocated to charity. We estimate that 20% of this allocation, or $1.26 trillion charitable dollars, will be given from Jewish donors. By taking the Jewish Future Pledge, you can help ensure that more than $600 billion is set aside for Jewish causes when wealth is transferred from this generation to the next.”

Early signers included Canadian American philanthropist Charles Bronfman, Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, new JFNA chair Julie Platt and St. Louis real estate developer Tom Stern.

Locally, one of the first people to make the pledge was Suzanne Felson of San Francisco. A decade ago, Felson founded, which enabled parents to book activities for their kids online, and was CEO for several years until it was acquired by a tech company. Later, she co-founded the now-defunct Jewish Skinny newsletter.

A member of the Jewish Future Pledge advisory board, Felson, 53, believes there is enough wealth among her Jewish peers in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area to donate Jewishly. While she lauds her generation for “supporting the arts and schools [and] climate change initiatives,” she added that they “need to step up and also support the Jewish community.”

Following her lead and doing that through the Jewish Future Pledge would be a great strategy, she added. “That is why I didn’t take the pledge anonymously,” said Felson, who has run her own philanthropic foundation, the Etrog Fund, for 27 years. She estimated that 70% to 80% of her donations go to Jewish causes, and she urges her Jewish friends to shoot for at least 50%.

We don’t take any money … As long as the money is going to a Jewish cause, we’re happy.

Felson means while they are living, but earmarking at least 50% of one’s charitable dollars to Jewish agencies upon one’s death could be just as good, if not better. Other Bay Area residents who have signed the pledge include Joanne and Fred Greene of Novato and J. Barry Gurdin of San Francisco.

When the Greenes signed on, they wrote, “We work hard to preserve the Jewish future in our lifetime.”

Joanne held various positions at the Osher Marin JCC for more than a decade, most recently as director of Jewish engagement, before stepping down when Covid hit. In 1986, she and Fred founded Greene Creative, a content creation firm that specializes in production for YouTube and iTunes and has created interactive attractions for more than 20 pro sports teams and 16 Super Bowls.

Joanne, 68, and Fred, 67, have volunteered at and donated money to Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael (where they are members), the JCC next door and URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. “We believe in the mission [of the Jewish Future Pledge] — even before the organization started,” Joanne said.

They also support causes such as women’s rights, reproductive rights and addressing food insecurity, she said. But “when it comes to really wanting to secure a Jewish future for our community, that is what we want our legacy to be.”

Gurdin, 75, falls into a similar category. He backs various causes — gun control, ecological initiatives and animal conservation, among others — and said, “I have a pretty progressive record over the course of my life.”

But last year, the clinical sociologist, anthropologist and writer also gave generously “to a host of Jewish organizations,” he said, including Magen David Adom, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and JNF.

He said he likes the Jewish Future Pledge because rather than saying “yes” after being put on the spot by a donation-soliciting nonprofit, in this case he is making a promise to himself.

“I like to keep my word,” he said. “I like concrete action. When Yom Kippur comes, I don’t want to have to absolve myself.”

Gurdin said one of the reasons he felt compelled to act is because he’s “concerned about the visciousness of antisemitism here” in the Bay Area. Another reason is his concern that there is a lot of verbiage these days “alienating young people from the State of Israel.”

Schalk, the pledge’s executive director, believes that engaging young adults and others who feel “disconnected” from Jewish life will “help spark pride in who we are as a people” and ensure a healthy Jewish future. To that end, pledge-makers are encouraged to talk to their children and grandchildren “about Jewish philanthropy and the Jewish values you hope they will carry on. These conversations and your pledge contribute to your legacy.”

In addition, the Jewish Future Pledge has created a Jewish Youth Pledge for 13- to 24-year-olds, asking them to “commit to being active, committed members of the Jewish community throughout their lives,” and providing resources so they can follow through.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.