The Amer­i­can Jew­ish Phil­an­thropic Com­plex: The His­to­ry of a Multi­bil­lion-Dol­lar Institution

  • Review
By – March 15, 2021

The Amer­i­can Jew­ish Phil­an­thropic Com­plex, by Lila Cor­win Berman, chair of Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty, recounts a his­to­ry that is deeply com­pli­cat­ed. Begin­ning by not­ing how much of con­tem­po­rary life is sup­port­ed by phil­an­thropy, from Berman’s own endowed uni­ver­si­ty posi­tion, to the pub­lic radio she lis­tens to, and the school com­put­ers her chil­dren use, The Amer­i­can Jew­ish Phil­an­thropic Com­plex details how this man­i­fes­ta­tion of the pri­vate con­trol over pub­lic life” is echoed through­out Amer­i­ca, and in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in particular.

From the intri­ca­cies of US tax poli­cies (includ­ing the emer­gence of the IRS itself), to recent inter­nal Jew­ish debates sur­round­ing scan­dals like Mad­off and abu­sive behav­ior by major donors, Berman weaves a web cen­tered upon the ten­sion between gov­ern­ment over­sight and the appor­tion­ment of finan­cial resources to both col­lec­tive bod­ies and indi­vid­ual citizens.

Acknowl­edg­ing that dis­cus­sions of Jew­ish finan­cial enti­ties might raise eye­brows con­cerned with anti­se­mit­ic sen­ti­ments, Berman pas­sion­ate­ly argues for the impor­tance of both a trans­par­ent phil­an­thropic sys­tem, and a full under­stand­ing of its his­to­ry. Dis­cus­sions of the short-lived Unit­ed Hebrew Char­i­ties are quick­ly fol­lowed by an intri­cate­ly detailed review of the fis­sures, pol­i­tics, accom­plish­ments, and con­tin­ued attempts at uni­ty that have defined Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties’ phil­an­thropic support.

Berman is adept at weigh­ing the plus­es and minus­es of cer­tain donor prac­tices – such as endow­ment funds, which she argues might help ensure a finan­cial­ly sta­ble future, but… too often [con­strain] spend­ing, com­mit­ting insti­tu­tions to caus­es that… become obso­lete, or releas­ing only small amounts of their hold­ings, despite the grav­i­ty of social prob­lems.” Along­side these analy­ses, she expert­ly sketch­es per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al por­traits of the impact­ful titans of the last cen­tu­ry, includ­ing Felix War­burg, Michael Stein­hardt, and less well-known names, like Nor­man Sug­ar­man, an under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed actor in the dra­mat­ic changes that occurred in Amer­i­can life from the 1950s through the 1970s.”

Schol­ars of Jew­ish Amer­i­can life, donors con­sid­er­ing the most impact­ful ways to pos­i­tive­ly affect con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life, and those inter­est­ed in the inspir­ing, but often com­pli­cat­ed, his­to­ry of foun­da­tions and fed­er­a­tions will gain much from this learned study.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions