Old traditions, new rules

Topic No. 1 on the Sukkot circuit this year was the economy. How bad will it get? Who’s pulling their kids out of day school? Where are you putting yourmoney? What money?

“I have a new word for my sukkah this year,” a friend said as we walked into his simple bamboo-and-muslin hut: “Affordable housing.”

There’s no doubt about it: We are scared. Things have been bad before but not this bad. After seven fat years come the lean, just like our tradition says.

The problem is particularly acute in the world of Jewish nonprofits. In the fat years, they have built up a skein of projects, payrolls and programs that demand a constant flow of philanthropic dollars. Now comes the reckoning, when they will have to redefine and redirect the role of money in Jewish life.

For Jewish nonprofits — schools, community centers, synagogues, social service and social action agencies — what exactly does that mean?

For answers, I went to the top. I called Bob Aronson, who for 20 years has been CEO of the Detroit Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization that under Aronson has raised more money per capita than any group of its kind. Aronson just announced this week that he is stepping down as CEO in Detroit (he will remain a senior adviser). He will continue as president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and will consult with other philanthropies.

“Oy,” he said to me when I congratulated him on the move. “My friends are saying, ‘Now is not the time to be a philanthropic consultant — no one’s got any money.'”

Aronson, of course, doesn’t really believe that.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” he said, “but it too will pass.”

In the meantime, according to Aronson, there are some rules we should all live by:

  1. Don’t Panic.

    “People are afraid to give,” Aronson said. “Even if they have money, it’s psychological. They’re stopping allocation. They’re stopping solicitation. But the most important thing is to keep going, to realize that we have a job to do, if only because the number of people who need our support is also growing.”

  2. Be Frugal.

    “We have to be extremely careful about expenditure and overhead,” Aronson said. “Even if we raise more money, there will be greater need for allocations.”

    The cutbacks will have to include staff, salary, nonessential programs, glossy mailers and that Jewish charity mainstay: the banquet.

    “Messages are extremely important, and fancy dinners send absolutely the wrong message,” Aronson said.

    The Detroit federation just moved a big donor dinner from a grand hotel to a private home and substituted desserts for dinner.

  3. Be Aggressive.

    “We have to be as aggressive as ever in asking for money,” Aronson said. “At our core, this is what we’re about, and philanthropists still expect to be asked.”

    The media is full of sad-sack accounts of billionaires who, having lost 20 percent of their net worth overnight, are down to their last 9 billion. Some of these men have the gall to say they will have to reduce their charitable commitments.
    I asked Aronson, a guy who plays in those leagues, to try to help me understand that mentality.

    “It’s all relative,” he said. “If a guy had $3 billion and now he has $1 [billion], we say, ‘You’re still a billionaire.’ He says, ‘I’m down to my last billion.'”

    Aronson recently met with a big macher who said he wouldn’t be giving this year. The man, Aronson pointed out, wasn’t about to give up his Gulfstream 4 to give money away: “For some of these guys, giving is just not fundamental to who they are.”

    One solution is for our communal leaders — rabbis, organizational heads — to make the case that self-worth is not a function of net worth.

    “Our spiritual leaders have a bigger responsibility now to point out our responsibilities,” Aronson said.

  4. Prioritize.

    “Now is probably not the time to be starting a new capital campaign,” Aronson said. “People are losing their jobs, their health care, their housing. They need food; they need money. This economy is affecting the poor and the elderly, but it’s also having a major impact on the middle class.”

    “Now is the time to look at meeting the everyday needs of people.”

I asked Aronson if it wasn’t true that there is still enough money in the Jewish community for all these needs — the big buildings in memory of Mr. and Mrs. So and So, the edgy outreach to 20-somethings, the cross-cultural community bridge-building. Besides, each of these has a natural constituency that probably wouldn’t be moved to give otherwise.

“That’s simplistic,” Aronson shot back. “There may be, but it’s hard to raise money right now, and we need to focus on what’s critical.”

Where does Israel fit in on this list of priorities? Aronson is one of the prime movers behind Birthright Israel, which brings thousands of young adults to Israel for 10 days each year.

“Obviously, the domestic need is the priority right now,” he said. “We need to meet our obligation to Israel, but we need to make sure we are meeting our needs here.”

“We are really at the point where we need to be worrying about clothing the naked and caring for the widow and the orphan,” said Aronson .

Just like it says in our tradition.