Jewish organizations: too many, or not different enough?
01/19/2010 - 13:30
James Besser

Two weeks ago, Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt wrote a fascinating column  about a 1950s report on redundancy and wastage in the American Jewish world, and how so many of the problems highlighted in the report continue.

Do we really need an American Jewish Congress, an American Jewish Committee, a JCPA, an ADL and all the other alphabet soup agencies, with all their overlapping functions and turf battles?

The issue of redundancy is important, but there’s an other side to the question that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the diminishing differences between organizations as they all chase the same pool of donors. Maybe what we need is more different organizations

When I started reporting from Washington in the mid-1980s, there were some real distinctions in the Jewish world.

The American Jewish Congress was the epicenter of liberal Jewish activism in Washington, with a special focus on church-state matters and  civil rights, and the ADL had an overwhelming focus on anti-Semitism; neither talked very much about Israel.  AIPAC and the Presidents Conference were all about Israel.

To a degree, those distinctions persist, but they’re getting blurrier by the year.

Everybody wants to be in on pro-Israel activism - -because it’s the overarching issue of the Jewish community, they say, but also because there’s nothing like threats to Israel to open the checkbooks of big donors.

Global anti-Semitism is an important issue,  no doubt about it, but it’s  also an issue everybody wants a slice of  because it’s so attractive to big donors.

And that group of donors is getting smaller and ideologically narrower as groups shift to an overwhelming focus on the biggest givers in our community. It’s a pretty small pool,  and many of them have similar views on important issues, so the organizations become more and more alike as dial for dollars.

I don’t think the issue is that we have too many organizations; the problem is that we have too many organizations that are saying basically the same things about the same issues, with the same focus, because they’re going after the same big donors.

While American Jews are becoming more diverse in their interests and views, our communal giants are moving  in the opposite direction. No wonder they’re having a hard time recruiting a new generation of activists.

Sure, there’s duplication and waste in the Jewish communal world. But I would argue some of that is because everybody’s trying to do the same things in the same way in the interests of fundraising.

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