Generation Gap In Giving
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 
For a long time, Danielle Durchslag had absolutely no interest in anything Jewish. The 25-year-old Soho resident hated Hebrew school, despised the Jewish overnight camps she was sent to and describes the trip she took to Israel when she was a teenager as “an utter disaster.” Durchslag, who is an artist, is also the great-granddaughter of philanthropist Nathan Cummings, and has been an associate board member of the Nathan Cummings Foundation for the past decade. The foundation gives away about $20 million a year to groups doing work in several different areas: the arts, the environment, health and Jewish life. During her first years on the board, Durchslag focused her attention on its Arts Committee. Then, when she was 19 and in college, she went to a conference for children of wealth interested in progressive causes. Participants were asked to shout out a quality that identified them, like “meat eater,” and others with that characteristic were to join their circle. Much to her own surprise, Durchslag said, she shouted out “Jewish.” And to her astonishment, most of the other people in the room came into her circle. “I was amazed to see what a large percentage of that room we were, considering what a small percentage of the population we are. But there was no discourse about Jewish values, Jewish giving or Jewish identity among us,” said Durchslag, who now works as an educator at the Jewish Museum in New York. “I suddenly realized I was interested in speaking to other Jews in my position but I had no way of finding them. Asking ‘who here is Jewish and gives away money?’ is not exactly dorm-room conversation,” she said. Young philanthropists like Durchslag are of great concern to the organized Jewish community, which is grappling with the need to attract them if their rapidly aging donor base is to be replenished. Yet a surprising number of long-established Jewish organizations evince no apparent interest in seriously engaging young adults, experts say. “These are the people who have the ability to become stewards of the Jewish community in the future,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, an organization of about 1,100 trustees and staff members of Jewish family foundations. “We want them to take on more financial responsibility, but when it comes to having decision-making authority in meaningful areas, our answer is ‘You’re not ready for that.’ These are people with enormous authority running their own companies, making $100 million decisions at a hedge fund. Their opinions have gravity in other spheres of their life but in the Jewish community we still define young leadership engagement as the junior level of the annual campaign. That’s not good enough,” he said. There are a number of characteristics separating the generations, among them that younger donors often don’t have the same nearly reflexive commitment to Jewish causes as their parents and grandparents. The Bronfmans provide an illustration. Stephen Bronfman, 42, has one sister and a number of first cousins, but only a few are deeply involved in Jewish causes. His father, Charles Bronfman and uncle, Edgar Bronfman, are two of the best-known Jewish philanthropists in the world. Stephen, who lives in Montreal, gives about half of his philanthropic money to Jewish causes, focusing on Montreal and Israel. His father, in contrast, focuses almost exclusively on Jewish needs, he said. There was a time when he was uninterested in Jewish giving altogether, and that has changed. “I used to say to my dad, ‘You take care of the Jews, I have other things to do,’” Bronfman said in an interview. “But you mature a bit and say there’s other stuff but there is also the Jews.” Experts say that conventional Jewish organizations are failing to adapt to the changes. “The institutional community views engagement of the younger generation as new and more creative ways to separate them from their money, as opposed to some kind of authentic engagement, which is what the younger generation is seeking,” said Charendoff. Just before Rosh HaShanah he was approached by a woman in her 20s who recently settled her father’s estate and came into a “very, very large amount of money,” he said. “She wants to be philanthropic, she wants to give to the right causes, but she is frustrated because everywhere she seeks guidance they say ‘Just give it to us,’ and that’s not what she wants to do. She wants to figure out how she can make a difference and where she can put in energy,” Charendoff said. Researchers from Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy project that over the course of the next four decades, $41 trillion will be passed down to children and grandchildren in the United States. No one knows just how much of that will come from or be inherited by Jews, but observers say that it is a significant sum. There is fear that these dollars, in the hands of young people, may be lost to the Jewish community, say some. One way that Jewish establishment groups are addressing the transfer of wealth “has been to ramp up the endowment campaigns as quickly as possible to lock in old money quickly, before it’s inherited by future generations which will have different priorities,” said Yosef Abramowitz, publisher of and, online magazines geared toward teenagers. The idea that young adults should be taken seriously in terms of their Jewish connections is apparently a new idea to many. “It is only recently that some of us have been advocating for this missed opportunity, the 11 years on average between college graduation and marriage, when all the research in the general community shows us that identities are still being formed. We know now that it continues into the 30s, when it used to be thought to end at age 18 or 19,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “We have a supply-side Jewish community that has nothing for that age group. What exists after Hillel? Synagogues and JCCs don’t particularly reach out to young adults,” he said. “It is not a time of great welcoming.” Few long-established Jewish groups have succeeded in attracting ongoing funding from young adults, experts say. Part of the problem for young donors like Durchslag is that they want to make their own mark and in a Jewish way, but have no idea of how to go about it. To address her own need for connection Durchslag, with the Bronfman foundation, co-founded Grand Street, a network for people between 18 and 28. Each year, a new class of about a dozen is invited to participate. This year is the network’s fourth, and all of the Grand Street groups will gather Oct. 13-15 at a retreat in Glen Cove, L.I., for an annual exploration of shared questions. During the year, each class meets for drinks and Shabbat dinners, said Sharna Goldseker, 31, vice president of the Bronfman Philanthropies, who staffs it. Out of Grand Street has grown Slingshot, which began last year as a book and this year has continued as the second iteration of a Zagat-style guide to 50 Jewish groups that the network has deemed most innovative. They range from tiny — BINA, for Beta Israel of North America, is a group that represents Ethiopian Jews on a budget of $10,000 — to large, represented by birthright israel, which has a budget of $40 million (and which is co-founded and co-funded by Charles Bronfman, whose foundation midwifed Slingshot). When the first Slingshot guide came out, its publishers were taken aback by how many copies were requested. “We were surprised to see how this simple tool was much in demand,” said Goldseker. Last year they first printed 2,000 but quickly ran out, and in the end distributed over 5,000. This year, they began with a print run of 5,000. It is being published in tandem with the creation of the Slingshot Fund, whose participants aim to donate between $350,000 and $500,000 to groups in the book. While Grand Street is proving a refuge and a launching pad for Jewish young adult philanthropists, it remains a nearly anomalous example of creative outreach to this population. While “there are a slew of organizations that do it in the universal realm, Grand Street is in a bit of a vacuum in the Jewish world,” said Roger Bennett, 36, senior vice president of the Bronfman Philanthropies. “I wish it wasn’t the case.” “There have been good but isolated efforts, including those of several foundations across the country, but even these at most are small-scale pilot efforts. The question is how to take them and make them large-scale,” said Charendoff of JFN. It remains to be seen whether long-established Jewish groups will adapt well enough to attract the donors who are now young adults. “If you had told me when I first started at the foundation that I’d be on the Jewish Life Committee, I would have laughed,” said Durchslag. “I once went to a Jewish Funders Network conference and heard a speaker say ‘Whenever I work with a business which blames its customers for problems, I already know that they’re dead in the water.’ ” Among Jewish organizations, she said, “there’s a lot of blaming the customer. But if anything, the customers are ready. They need a system that speaks to their needs, and where we are in our generation.”

Last Update:

11/03/2009 - 11:08

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox