Whistling in the Dark from Hartlepool, England [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 4, 2019; Jewish Currents

A recent article in Jewish Currents, drawing on an earlier work in the Washington Post covered two weeks ago by NPQ’s Martin Levine, takes up the issue of the sexual harassment of fundraisers by large donors, specifically in the Jewish community, suggesting that the practice is directly supported by two things:

  • An obsession among some of those large donors with the idea of Jewish continuity, and
  • The replacement of more communal fundraising with a dependence on mega-donors.

Catie Stewart’s account is personal. On the first point, she writes from personal experience that she “frequently was on the receiving end of questions about ‘Jewish continuity’ that are at the core of the Jewish communal sexual harassment issue. These questions and comments ranged from ‘Are you married?’ or ‘Will you go out with me/my nephew?’ to ‘You seem like the right age to start having Jewish babies.’”

Stewart adds, “In my years working for Jewish nonprofits and attending programs coordinated by them, I experienced behavior that ranged from plain sexism to outright sexual harassment. There was groping, there were inappropriate comments and questions about my body, and there were plenty of offensive sexist jokes.”

“We were also told that there was nothing to be done about it,” says Stewart. “Our community’s future depends on donor largesse. To report a donor, or to cut off the relationship, we were told, would bring career, and even communal, harm.” Ultimately, Stewart left the Jewish nonprofit world.

Stewart notes that the harassment from which she suffered while fundraising for Jewish nonprofits was structural. She writes, “Jewish communal institutions and nonprofits have a well-documented donor problem: a small group of older, white, conservative men provides almost all the funding for most Jewish organizations. You’ve probably heard their names: Kraft, Bronfman, Adelson, and Steinhardt, to list only the most prominent examples. Dependence on mega-donors has wrought many negative consequences for Jewish life, but one in particular is that it clears the way for a toxic culture of sexual harassment.”

Stewart adds:

Harassment in the Jewish community—and everywhere—fundamentally stems from power imbalances that make those on the receiving end of this behavior vulnerable to those who are able to act inappropriately with no consequence. These imbalances are so often fueled by money — who has it and who needs it.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in our community is compounded by the fact that so much of this money goes towards supporting initiatives that encourage Jewish baby-making in service of the future of the Jewish people. [Birthright Israel] is the prime example of this. Last year, Sarah Seltzer, writing for Jewish Currentsuncovered the ways in which Birthright has developed a toxic culture rife with sexual harassment and assault in no small part because of its implicit (and even explicit) emphasis on Jewish continuity and sex. It’s not surprising that these donors often feel ownership over our bodies. As they see it, they paid for us. The programs they’re funding have explicit agendas that essentially make intra-communal sex and reproduction a project deliverable.

Lila Corman Berman, a professor of history and director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, last month in the Washington Post noted that this idea is linked historically to the same era in which Jewish communal organizations abandoned their original sensibilities against building endowments and began to focus more on the cultivation of mega-donors.

Starting in the 1950s, at first gradually and then with fervor, Jewish federations that had once been unable—whether because of their bylaws, a lack of resources or both—to build endowments jumped into the business. They worked with lawyers, accountants and stockbrokers to learn how to sell Jews on the idea of stepping outside of the annual campaign model, with its money in and money out logic, and, instead, embracing the idea of charitable giving as a long-term proposition. The financial logic may have been sound, but the change in culture from donations for immediate needs to gifts seen as investments in an unknown future was profound.

And, on the notion of Jewish identity:

The newly emerging language of identity offered a compelling partner to the project of endowment building. Unlike the fulfillment of pressing basic needs, which required immediate expenditures, securing Jewish identity required a long view, with programs and research that could count on sustainable sources of funding. When Jewish federation leaders first embraced endowment, they anchored their case for it in the language of identity.

That language found its financial analogue in the practices of philanthropic perpetuity. By the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish leaders and observers began to use the word “survival,” an emotionally laden term in the wake of the Holocaust, to justify the necessity of warehousing Jewish capital for an unknowable future. Between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s, federation endowments grew nationally from $62 million to $223 million. This trend would only sharpen in the coming decades, and discussions of Jewish survival would join new ones about “continuity” beginning in the 1980s.

Berman says, “Birthright manifests the interlacing power of identity and endowment in American Jewish life.” It’s supported not only by Michael Steinhardt (whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes to be $1.1 billion), but also other even higher-dollar donors, such as Charles Bronfman and Sheldon Adelson. Berman says Birthright is a “program meant for the masses, but controlled by the few, a fine illustration of Jewish philanthropy more generally.”

Once, Stewart observes, “in the Jewish community, funding came from the actual community. You’d join a synagogue and pay dues, give a small sum annually to the Federation, and buy your niece a Hadassah lifetime membership for her bat mitzvah.”

But no more, as an Avi Chai Foundation study from 2018 documents. Stewart concludes that the focus on high-dollar givers creates an unhealthy environment for young people who are essentially sacrificed to organizations’ continued ability to fundraise from mega-donors. “In order to stop hemorrhaging young women, and young people in general,” she writes, “the Jewish community must have its own internal reckoning on the price we pay when we put donor interests first.”—Ruth McCambridge