By Wmpearl (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
December 16, 2017; Salon

Why do American Jews give more to charity than just about any other ethnic or religious group in America? Primarily because it is ingrained in their traditions of charity, or tzedakah, according to Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, a postdoctoral Fellow at the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Higher average education and per capita income also play a role.

The website Salon reprints an article by Bar Nassim in the Conversation, an academic and research news website, which say “even though only about one in 50 Americans is Jewish, US Jews donate at high levels, both as individuals and as a community.”

Bar Nissim, who studies community philanthropy, summarizes the findings of her research regarding why Jews play an outsized role in American philanthropy.

Most Jews, regardless of their economic status, heed their religious and cultural obligations to give. [Sixty percent] of Jewish households earning less than $50,000 a year donate, compared with 46 percent of non-Jewish households in that income bracket.

The report goes on to say that overall a larger percentage of Jews give to charity than people of other faiths—76 percent in 2012, compared with 63 percent of other Americans. And while Jews, like other Americans, give to religious institutions, they give relatively less to religion and more to secular causes.

While culture is critical, Jewish giving is boosted by two additional factors—education and wealth. Per capita, Jews are among the nation’s most educated and wealthy demographic groups. “American Jews have an average of 13 years of schooling, the highest for a US religious community. And 44 percent belong to households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more, the most for any major ethno-religious community.”

The study’s author goes on to say that education enhances charitable giving at all income levels, and donors of all faiths, regardless of their religious practices and identities, tend to give more money when their income rises. She drops four names well-known in American philanthropy: former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund investor George Soros, and homebuilder Eli Broad—all of whom “regularly make the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the nation’s 50 biggest donors”—and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who, with his wife, Priscilla Chan, runs the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability corporation that makes donations outside normal foundation rules, as NPQ has covered regularly.

But there is more to it than education and income, something with which every American Jew can readily identify regardless of how religious they are—Judaism’s “strong theological foundation for…robust giving.” In Hebrew, it’s called “tzedakah” (charitable giving), “tzedek” (justice), and “chesed,” (mercy or kindness), all of which encourage Jews to give to charity and treat people who are less fortunate with compassion. Many Jews embrace a concept known as the “eight degrees” of charitable giving, first articulated by the 12th-century intellectual Maimonides, who wrote of an eight-rung ladder that donors can ascend to get closer to heaven. At the bottom, donors give grudgingly, but at the top they help people in need to become self-sustaining, which sounds a lot like the current refrain of “change, not charity.”

The study also talks about the fact that the US Jewish community not only gives more than other religious groups, it gives differently, via patterns of charitable giving and philanthropic behavior as a way to express Jewish identity. Traditionally, US Jewish philanthropy has been focused on Jewish communal organizations such as Jewish federations, the regional nonprofit “middlemen” that distribute funds to causes in the US and abroad, although Jewish federations are hardly exempt from the philanthropic sea change that is shifting donations away from such intermediaries. Typically, Jewish federations emphasize the ethnic and cultural, non-religious expressions of Judaism, and reinforce the Jewish community’s tradition of charitable giving as a group effort as an approach to social action.

So, who benefits most from this largesse? The study looked at the giving patterns of North American Jewish grantmaking institutions, including almost 150 Jewish federations, along with thousands of Jewish community foundations, family and corporate foundations, and donor-advised funds. Many of them give more to non-Jewish causes than to Jewish ones, the study found—an average of 75 percent of the money backing non-Jewish causes. It amounts to more than $9 billion every year flowing “to social, welfare, educational, health, research, science, advocacy, art, cultural and environmental causes, [including] tens of thousands of local and international nonprofits serving a wide range of ethnic and religious communities in the US, Israel, and elsewhere.”

The study also analyzed the giving patterns of the 33 Jews who made the 2016 Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, concluding that an average of only 11 percent of the giving through their foundations backed exclusively Jewish causes. Instead, contributions mainly supported secular ones. Examples included billionaire Stephen Schwarzman’s $150 million gift to Yale University, entertainment mogul David Geffen’s same sized gift to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a $142 million gift that George Kaiser, son of Holocaust refugees, gave the Tulsa River Parks Authority. The author concludes that “many Jews perceive donations supporting social service providers and social justice advocates as a way to follow Jewish religious laws, even when their gifts benefit other religious and ethnic communities.”

Additional research indicates that only 9.6 percent of gifts from so-called “Jewish mega-donors” between 1995 and 2000 that totaled $10 million or more funded Jewish causes. Nearly half of them supported higher education and none supported religious causes or annual appeals to give to and through Jewish federations.”

Many Americans Jews are descendants of immigrants who escaped persecution and discrimination elsewhere and identify with and support groups that are currently suffering or even oppressed, Jewish or not. However, an equally important factor is that as American Jews become more assimilated and financially successful (hence there is less need within their own community), and some to the point of losing much of their Jewish identity, their philanthropy is being directed to the causes that resonate with today’s challenges and communities in need.—Larry Kaplan