The New Jews of Philanthropy

After years of folks asking: “Should a partnership of philanthropists, Jewish federations and the Israeli government be squandering money sending middle-class and rich kids to Israel when needs were so pressing at Jewish day schools and for various Israeli social service programs?”, blogger Noah Lederman reports on one of the first efforts of young adults taking on Birthright Israel fundaising.

28477This past Thursday, beneath the section of the High Line yet to be refurbished, Taglit-Birthright Israel alumni gathered for what was the kickoff party to the “I am Birthright Israel” campaign. It was to celebrate ten years of sending Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel, and to fundraise.

As I passed beneath the shadow of the High Line it felt like the perfect symbol for the state of Jewish philanthropy. That eyesore running through Chelsea was at one point like many Jewish charities after Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme—in serious jeopardy. But those who couldn’t let a landmark die transformed the elevated wasteland into a beautified respite from the city, similar to how a bunch of young Jews—mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, who had traveled to Israel on Birthright—are trying to breathe new life into Jewish fundraising.

Taglit-Birthright Israel was in need of assistance. Although Birthright had never invested with Bernie Madoff, they most certainly felt his impact (check out Business Insider’s list for your favorite Jewish organization burned by Bernie). Not to mention, our crumbling economy isn’t helping. In 2008, Birthright sent 42,000 Jews to the Holy Land, but had to cut that number back to about 25,000 in 2009.

Once I arrived inside the M2 nightclub on 28th street, I watched as the event organizers, most of whom donated months of time to plan this fundraiser, sprinted around in their cocktail attire, clutching envelopes of raffle tickets. (The grand prize: a trip back to Israel). The goal for the campaign is $130,000, just enough to send one busload of Jews to Israel. (You can go to Birthright’s website to watch the windows of the bus graphic change from grey to blue as money trickles in—at the time of posting, the campaign had raised $47,891).

As the congregation swelled to seven hundred, everyone seemed to be enjoying the open bar and the music of past Birthright participant, DJ Gatsby, who played funky grooves and even mashed up forgotten Israeli tunes with modern American pop.

“What do you think this is?” a girl asked me as we stood by the food table. “It’s not crab cakes, is it?”

It did taste like crab cakes.

“It’s definitely not crab cakes,” a guy interrupted. “Do you think they’d serve crab cakes? There are rabbis here.”

Then the organizers spoke. They were so passionate about the project that I was half-expecting one of them to slip in some blame on the villain of the story, Madoff. Were they going to whisper his name like old Jewish ladies mouthing cancer? Or was Madoff the Haman of the 21st Century? Where was my grogger?

But of course they didn’t. It was a celebration. A party with a mission. Ten years of life-changing trips—even alumnus/NASCAR driver, Jon Denning, took to the stage to confirm that and give a little something back.

Some people have doubted alumni gratitude, with accusations of taking the free trip and not giving back, but ten years was a necessary wait for this campaign to launch. Ten years ago, even five years ago, the Birthright alumni were oversexed, party-coveting college kids and entry-level employees, who probably wouldn’t have even been able to cover the cost of the event ticket, let alone pledge money. A fundraising crusade back then would have been as successful as deciding what to do with settlements in the West Bank.

Finally, however, the organizers were all grown up and of age to show their appreciation for the gift once bestowed upon them by bringing in the money. It should be the first of many events. But the benevolence is definitely deficient. Considering that the organization sent around a quarter of a million people to Israel, it’s a shame that only a small percentage of Jews are volunteering now to reel in the funding. (I also am plagued with the same Jewish guilt, but I did buy a few raffle tickets). It seemed, though, that the Jews paying entrance were genuine in their support and good for bit of cash too.

Although $130,000 is a drop in the bucket, this new school of Jewish fundraising has one knack that the older Jewish charities lack. They know how to throw a party.

Non-Jew and Hip Hop star O’Neal McKnight reminded us with his flashy moves on a cross-shaped catwalk that we, as Jews, were not good dancers. (Last week I also had that proven when I got tangoed off the dance floor in Buenos Aires).

Comedian Nick Kroll and former Birthrighter Michelle Collins of VH1’s “Best Weekend Ever” took to the stage too.

“Shut the fuck up,” Collins goodheartedly screamed numerous times as the crowd refused to do so.

“Oh my God,” those that were listening whispered as Kroll and Collins brought up everything from STDs to circumcisions to 9/11. “The rabbis are here.”

No one brought up Madoff though.

It was a night for the new Jews of philanthropy.

Noah Lederman has published a number of articles, some of which have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle and The Cape Cod Times. Currently he is completing a book of narrative nonfiction, My Grandparents’ Holocaust. Read excerpts at www.mygrandparentsholocaust.blogspot.com.

19 Responses to “The New Jews of Philanthropy”

  1. My god! THey can eat crabcakes and still be blinded by the likud narrative! Yay!
    (this article has no content at all.)


    Amit · August 17th, 2009 at 3:17 pm
  2. Amazing. The first article you link to says:

    ===
    Isaacs, who describes his religious practice and knowledge as “sub-Reform,” ….
    ===

    Wow. It may be an empirical fact that African-Americans attain lower average levels of education than other Americans. But would it be acceptable, in 2009, for someone to describe their education as “sub-black”? And if they did, would a reputable newspaper print such a quote without comment?


    BZ · August 17th, 2009 at 6:56 pm
  3. sub-Reform,”

    But BZ, is it not saying something about the state of the Reform Movement today that so many–in my limited life experience– unobservant/uninterested Jews use the response “I don’t do that, I’m only Reform” when the subject of Jewish living comes up?


    Jonathan1 · August 17th, 2009 at 7:20 pm
  4. Is it not saying something about the state of the Roma nation today that so many ignorant people say “I got gypped” when they’ve been cheated?


    BZ · August 17th, 2009 at 7:38 pm
  5. (Regardless of what “the state of the Reform Movement today” is, the people who say things like that don’t tend to be the people who would know one way or the other what that state is.)


    BZ · August 17th, 2009 at 7:43 pm
  6. I most definetly don’t know a thing about the “state” of the Reform Movement, I was simply asking a question, from my position of ignorance.


    Jonathan1 · August 17th, 2009 at 7:59 pm
  7. Wait, I’m one of those people who want to know why it’s a better investment to send a quarter million young jews to Israel for 10 days than to subsidize k-12 jewish education.

    Oh well.


    rokhl · August 18th, 2009 at 12:40 am
  8. Should a partnership of philanthropists, Jewish federations and the Israeli government be squandering money sending middle-class and rich kids to Israel

    And the poor kids whose only chance to visit Israel is a free trip? Yeah, it sure sounded like you forgot about us.


    Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) · August 18th, 2009 at 7:38 am
  9. And the poor kids whose only chance to visit Israel is a free trip? Yeah, it sure sounded like you forgot about us.

    Ah, good old classism and the invisibility of poorer Jews. Thanks Steg for pointing out this out.


    chillul Who? · August 18th, 2009 at 8:03 am
  10. So let’s switch to a needs-based model. And get some sweat equity from participants who are given a free ride. Then they might end up having a substantive experience that could allow for a real connection with the State.


    Siviyo · August 18th, 2009 at 8:28 am
  11. Not to keep banging on this particular drum, but I think birthright is pretty much a bad, bad thing and I don’t care who they send or how it’s financed. (Or that’s it’s “life-changing”). We should talk about that more. And by “we,” I mean….you know, whoever.


    miri · August 18th, 2009 at 11:06 am
  12. Steg, would you rather the money be spent on sending (poor) kids to Israel or giving them a good Jewish education where they are? The temple is destroyed; we don’t do hajj anymore/yet.


    Amit · August 18th, 2009 at 4:26 pm
  13. giving them a good Jewish education

    The Jewish community spends vast resources on Jewish Day Schools. At least in my network of Jewish friends who went to a Day School – I went for 2 years until my tuition assistance ran out and my parents couldn’t afford it – a Jewish Day School did very very little for their sense of connection to the Jewish community or to Yiddishkeit in general, except in a highly superficial, “yeah I had a bar mitzvah” way.

    Are you arguing for a more traditional Jewish education? Such options exist, too. In my city, there are several more observant institutions. Chabad runs a very well regarded kindergarten and recently (5 years ago?) took over a failing orthodox-style middle school. There is a Litvischer-run orthodox middle and high school Yeshiva as well. But again, the issue is not whether these choices exist – they do in most cities – but to convince parents that their children should go there.

    Furthermore, what do you do about the demographic of Jews who did not get the “right” Jewish education, most at risk of assimilation and intermarriage, in the 18-26 years of age? There’s a reason why BRI targets this age group. Yeshiva bocherim from Orthodox and Chassidic backgrounds aren’t taking free trips to Israel. It is those for whom connection with Israel, no matter how superficial, is one of a few last vestiges of Jewish identity that BRI is meant for.

    So let’s switch to a needs-based model. And get some sweat equity from participants who are given a free ride.

    What do you want them to do? Clean IDF tanks? Seriously, the entire point of BRI is that most young American Jews will not visit Israel at one of the most critical stage in their lives, when they are making choices that will have a permanent effect on their lifestyle – marriage, children, community. And even those who do are not likely to undergo the two week emotional rollercoaster that is BRI. Even most Israelis haven’t been to all the places a typical BRI bus goes to. The Israelis on my bus were themselves surprised by the experience.

    Not to get melodramatic, but BRI is open soul surgery. It gives Jews an opportunity to connect with something essential; whether or not they do is up to them. Their being there IS their sweat equity.


    Victor · August 18th, 2009 at 5:16 pm
  14. I recently came across contrasting perspective on BRI and related issues from an Israeli girl. While the criticism is harsh in tone, I hope that does not prevent anyone from giving consideration the points addressed in the video:

    mondoweiss.net/2009/08/invincible-you-cant-disconnect-a-people-from-the-importance-of-place.html


    kyleb · August 18th, 2009 at 5:36 pm
  15. The only thing useful I learned by following your link was that the J Street political action committee has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from dozens of Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as from several individuals connected to organizations doing Palestinian and Iranian issues advocacy, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

    Money quote from J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:

    I think it is a terrific thing for Israel for us to be able to expand the tent of people who are willing to be considered pro-Israel and willing to support Israel through J Street.

    As Jonathan1 would say: Wow.
    Wow, indeed.


    Victor · August 18th, 2009 at 6:20 pm
  16. Well, I unfortunately can’t say I’m surprised to learn that you are astonished by Arab and Muslim Americans being supportive of a pro-Israel and pro-peace movement, or that you didn’t learn anything else from the website which you consider “useful”.


    kyleb · August 18th, 2009 at 8:48 pm
  17. Whereas all the money given to the crazy right-wing movements by christians who want us all to convert is just hunky-dory.


    Amit · August 19th, 2009 at 6:34 am
  18. Furthermore, what do you do about the demographic of Jews who did not get the “right” Jewish education, most at risk of assimilation and intermarriage, in the 18-26 years of age? There’s a reason why BRI targets this age group. Yeshiva bocherim from Orthodox and Chassidic backgrounds aren’t taking free trips to Israel. It is those for whom connection with Israel, no matter how superficial, is one of a few last vestiges of Jewish identity that BRI is meant for.
    Have you been living under a rock, Victor? That is one of the main points of Jewschool. THe risk is not “intermarriage”, it is “lack of interest in Judaism”. And if all that money went, say, to Independant minyanim, or Yeshivat Hadar, or myjewishlearning.com or Jewschool (just to name a few, scroll up or down to see more funding opportunities), people “most at risk for shagging goyim” might even care about their religion, for a change.


    Amit · August 19th, 2009 at 7:00 am
  19. Great post Noah…

    Excited for the release of your book..


    Brian · August 21st, 2009 at 8:54 am

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