Philanthropy and the “Jewish Continuity Crisis”Roundup
tags: Jewish history, Israel, Zionism
Hadas Binyamini is a PhD student in the departments of history and of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.
In a 2016 episode of the Comedy Central sitcom Broad City, costars Abbi and Ilana go on an “all-expense-paid trip to Israel” called “Birthmarc.” On the plane, the two find themselves surrounded by the archetypes of their milieu: Ivy League–educated, nationalist, and horny young Jews, all wearing blue T-shirts featuring a Star of David, all ready to get married, right now, on the plane. The satire of the very real program Taglit-Birthright Israel mocks American Jews’ classism and natalism, as well as an economic culture that promotes Jewish endogamy—or Jews marrying Jews. A young man named Mark runs to the front of the plane and tells his fellow participants, “I’m proudly gay—mazel—but I’m looking for a nice Jewish girl to marry … because that’s the only way I can gain access to my trust fund.” Their trip leader, Jared, wears a knitted blue-and-white kippa and arranges seating assignments according to participants’ “match potential” (i.e., their likelihood to tie the knot). Eventually, he comes clean to Ilana about why he is so desperate for the young Jews to pair up: he gets a commission for every “match” made on the trip, with a double commission if he can provide proof of a hookup before the plane lands.
Viewers laugh because the episode exaggerates a familiar link between free Jewish programs, Jewish marriage and reproduction, and concentrated wealth. In the world outside the show, these familiar tropes are more commonly presented as hot-button Jewish issues, none more familiar than Jewish communal leaders’ and commentators’ moral panic over interfaith marriages, which these same commentators have called a Jewish “continuity crisis.” Like white panic over urban crime rates, Christian opposition to gay rights, or conservative allegations that Aid to Families with Dependent Children encourages single motherhood, the Jewish continuity crisis emerged in the 1960s amid intensifying economic anxiety and attendant concerns about the decline of the nuclear family. Sexual liberalism, weak morals, low fertility, birth-control use, and, worst of all, intermarriage would lead—Jewish communal leaders feared—to the disintegration of the Jewish peoples.
Certainly, Jewish communal leaders have worried about intermarriage throughout American Jewish history. But opposition to intermarriage became, in the words of historian Lila Corwin Berman, Jews’ “postwar communal obsession.” And to match their all-consuming passion, Jewish leaders developed techniques to make sure their coffers would always be stocked in the fight against intermarriage.
The so-called Jewish continuity crisis reached disaster proportions in the 1990s, when philanthropy-funded studies revealed that 52 percent of American Jews married non-Jewish partners. In 1999, Jewish leaders responded to this sense of crisis by fusing Zionism and Jewish endogamy in the form of Birthright. At its launch, Birthright was funded with $210 million raised from American Jewish community federations, the Israeli government, hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt, and Seagram liquor heir Charles Bronfman.
Starting in 2005, Birthright’s fundraising materials pointed to statistics compiled through the Steinhardt-funded Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. The data showed that Birthright participants married non-Jews less frequently than the general American Jewish population did. Successful promotion of Jewish endogamy went hand in hand with successful fundraising.
Birthright is undeniably ubiquitous in the Jewish world: it has provided free trips for over 700,000 Jews since its founding and generated revenues of $121 million and $99 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively. This reach has only been possible because of the US political economy, which allows Jewish philanthropies to accumulate capital indefinitely, assisted by massive American government subsidies, all in the name of the public’s interest.
Birthright’s product— “Jewish continuity”—encourages this economic arrangement. In the hands of multibillion-dollar nonprofit entities, “Jewish continuity” sanctions a political order in which nuclear families, wealth, and privately controlled communal institutions, rather than the government, provide a social safety net.
In her far-reaching new book, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multibillion-Dollar Institution, Berman, the Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History at Temple University, covers over 150 years of Jewish philanthropy in the US, as well as the government policies and financial practices that shaped them. Her book is the first comprehensive history of the subject. Berman does not provide a triumphant tale of Jewish generosity, solidarity, and uplift, but rather an ambivalent story about the evolution of one ethnic-religious community’s institutions under American neoliberalism.
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