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A New York Minute
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A Rabbi's World
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles on controversies involving naming gifts in philanthropy.
Last September, a Jewish day school known since its 1946 founding as Akiba Hebrew Academy changed its name to the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, after the deceased brother of a major donor, in exchange for a $5 million pledge.
The change prompted outcry from alumni and some current students of the Philadelphia-area school, who accused its board of trustees of selling out the name and legacy of one of Jewish history’s greatest teachers, the second-century rabbi, in order to satisfy a donor.
Graduating seniors asked that Akiba, rather than Barrack, be on their diplomas — something that the head of school says he can’t do.
Some alumni wrote a group letter to the school’s leadership objecting to the name change.
“It’s just slapping your name on something. It’s part of a pattern that we all see in the Jewish community where individuals with a lot of money are turning their personal agendas into the communal agenda rather than showing stewardship,” says Allen Glicksman, a 1971 graduate, and research director at a non-profit agency.
Even the head of school acknowledges that the name change reflects the influence of major donors over Jewish institutions today, though he stressed that the gift has increased the dollars available for scholarships by $300,000 a year.
“There’s no question that had we had our druthers, we would have done anything possible to grant a naming opportunity in a variety of different configurations,” said Rabbi Philip Field. “We did not want to give up the history and significance of Rabbi Akiva for the school.” But he added that “a decision had to be made as to the future of the institution in terms of dollars, and position in the community and relationship with federation and all of that.”
The donor, Leonard Barrack, is also president of Philadelphia’s Jewish federation.
The school will soon move to a new campus owned by the federation. “It was not directly related, but a not insignificant factor that the new campus is owned by the federation,” said Rabbi Field. “Had we not accepted this gift it would have put this institution in a backwater.”
It is the most recent high-profile controversy about a naming gift in Jewish philanthropy, but it’s far from the only one.
Though according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy anonymous giving is on the rise, conflicts over naming gifts are frequent. A recent New York Times article focused on criticism of an Ohio hospital that named its new emergency room for a $10 million donor – clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch.
In this super-consumerist age, are naming gifts the ultimate form of buying an image? Are they about philanthropists purchasing “good names” and influence?
Or are they an opportunity to model generosity and spur others to do the same? And has changing the name of an institution become a condition for major gifts? These days, that often seems to be the case.
“There’s this long ambivalence in Jewish history about naming. There is a tradition of naming that goes back to archeological finds in Israel, which have mosaics from 2,000 years ago. Then there’s a parallel tradition of Maimonides, where anonymous giving is valued,” says Michael Bohnen, president of the Adelson Family Foundation.
He referred to the eight levels of giving as ranked by Maimonides, with anonymous giving one step under the highest, which is to enable a person to become self-sufficient.
Bohnen was founding chairman of The New Jewish High School of Boston when it started in 1997. Since receiving a $5 million gift from Joseph Gann in 2003, it has been known as Gann Academy: The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston. Appending the name of a major donor, without removing the original name, is one way that institutions please constituents, both current and former.
“We specifically picked a name that was, in effect, a placeholder. It would have been hard to change if we named it after a luminary,” said Bohnen, quipping, “The board rejected my idea of calling it Am Yisrael High.”
The challenge of honoring a donor while not allowing the naming to dominate the beneficiary institution recently spurred a new analysis of Jewish law by Rabbi David Golinkin, a leader of Israel’s Masorti movement.
In a review of Jewish legal literature titled “Is There a Problem With Plaques?” Rabbi Golinkin finds just one rabbi who opposed publicly heralding donations, 19th-century German Rabbi Eleasar Ottensosser. All other sources, both ancient and contemporary, support it.
“Normative Jewish practice for some 2,200 years has been to record gifts and to inscribe the names of donors because this serves as a memorial to the donor and encourages others to give tzedakah,” according to Rabbi Golinkin.
Ancient in practice though they may be, naming gifts can create unintended challenges. Because big gifts are important, and naming gifts freighted with emotional import to the donors, they often create a crucible where good intentions can end up resulting in hurt feelings when expectations aren’t met on either side.
When someone dedicates a building — or room or window — to a loved one’s memory, how long is the institution required to keep the name there? In perpetuity? For a decade? Until a bigger donor offers more?
Lincoln Square Synagogue, now constructing a new building near its current Upper West Side location, is grappling with that issue as it tries to honor the intentions of past donors while determining where the named objects from its current building will go in the new one.
“You’d be surprised how many people ask about it,” said Joe Blank, the synagogue’s executive director, noting that the memorial tablets will be be taken to the new building.
“It’s a very sensitive issue,” he said.
It is also an increasingly common one.
“How long a name stays up there has changed a lot in the past 10 years,” says Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network. “Used to be you gave a gift to a school and as long as that building was there you could count on the fact that you’d drive up and see your name. Now someone comes along and gives a bigger gift.”
He said the school remains but often under a new name.
Charendoff also cited the increasingly frequent practice of institutions adding on layers of names, like the Schwartz Campus of The Shapiro School, etc. He said it was legal “but against the original intent; I find that ethically problematic, and I’m being generous.”
What happens when a donor runs into trouble with the law, creating embarrassment in the community? Sometimes the gift is returned, sometimes not; memorable cases include Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and Marc Rich.
More recently, Haifa University returned a $75,000 gift given by David Radler, a business partner of (now imprisoned) Conrad Black. Radler pleaded guilty to mail fraud in Black’s recent trial and last month began serving a 29-month sentence in federal prison. Queen’s University, in Ontario, Canada, also returned a donation from Radler, but a Toronto hospital decided not to.
Donors, too, can become disenchanted. A well-known case took place in 1997 when prominent Jewish philanthropists Henry and Edith Everett pledged $3 million to refurbish the Central Park Zoo, then pulled out of the project after lengthy delays regarding the public oversight process and how the naming signage would appear.
The donation was immediately replaced by a $4 million gift by the Tisch family. That was especially galling to Henry Everett, an anti-smoking campaigner who lobbied against James Tisch becoming president of New York’s Jewish federation because the family owns, among other companies, cigarette manufacturer Lorillard.
Henry Everett has since passed away, and Edith Everett declined to be quoted in an article mentioning the incident, which caused her and her husband much duress.
“Donors have to be much more wary to make sure that when they make a large gift, their understanding is clearly agreed to by both sides. It’s great to walk in with good faith, but nowadays that’s not enough,” says Charendoff. “I can’t tell you the number of donors I speak to who feel they’ve been burned.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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