Decline in Jews obligation to federations is frightful

When The New York Times writes, people listen. When, therefore, The Times miswrites, as it did on Dec. 27, it's worth noting the errors.

The half-page article in question, "Donations to a Jewish Philanthropy Ebb," reported on a decline in the fortunes of America's United Jewish Appeal and Jewish Community Federation campaigns, down from $826 million in 1993 to $752 million in 1994.

The story moves in straightforward fashion from a description of the decline to an analysis of the alleged reasons for it — the absence of emergency, the inability to get young donors as involved as earlier generations were, the growing assimilation of Jews into American society, and, finally, the demise of peer pressure as a motivation for giving. Not until the 16th paragraph of the story do we learn that the decline may be limited to UJA and the federations, that if you look at the bottom line of Jewish philanthropy in general or of Israel-oriented Jewish philanthropy in particular, it's just possible there's been no decline at all.

What we learn in paragraphs 16 through 18 — there are 29 paragraphs altogether — is that some donors are making their contributions through other, smaller agencies, such as the American Friends of the Hebrew University; that even the older generation, which continues to give generously to UJA and the federations, may, as the total of its charitable giving increases, be giving an ever-smaller fraction to those bodies; that there may be as many dollars flowing to Israel from outside UJA as from UJA itself; and that some donors have established their own foundations through which they contribute directly both to Israel and to domestic Jewish institutions.

If all that is so, then it is difficult to understand why assimilation and the other "explanations" are dragged into the analysis — except, of course, that an article dealing with the narrow internal institutional problems of UJA and the federations would have been substantially less interesting than an article about such "big" existential questions.

That's not to say that the health of these groups is not a problem, even if it's not the kind of problem to which The Times typically devotes half a page. In at least two respects, the problem is one that ought concern anyone who cares about the quality of Jewish communal life.

First, and most urgently, there's the question of the network of services that local federations provide, services that have depended very heavily not only on our own generosity but also on help from government.

Housing for the elderly, diverse children's services, health care, job placement — all these are as important today as they were yesterday, and, given anticipated government cutbacks, are in far greater need of philanthropic support. And then we move on to services such as Jewish education that are not supported by government but that most of us also deem essential.

Second, there's the delicate issue of how much of our local federation dollar should go to Israel. Historically, communities have negotiated their own deals with national UJA, which depends on allocations from local communities for the funds it transmits to Israel. Not all that many years ago, UJA had the upper hand in those negotiations, since it was plain to everyone that the federation campaigns were using people's concerns about Israel to raise the money, a goodly fraction of which was then spent locally.

But as Israel has become more prosperous, and as federations have worked to make their constituents more aware of their local services, the balance of power in the negotiations has shifted. Given what's happening in Washington, D.C., these days, no one can argue that local needs are being exaggerated.

Whatever the agreement that's reached as UJA and the federation community consider a merger, there's little doubt that within a very few years most federations will be transmitting to Israel not the 50 percent (and better) they used to but, instead, 25 percent or so.

Not to worry: Give us a new emergency, whether in Israel or in some other threatened faraway place, and we'll again rise to the occasion.

Still: One anonymous lawyer interviewed in The Times article tells of how, 20 years ago, he used to solicit people by telling them that their contribution "is the tax you owe" on your membership in the Jewish people. "Today," he goes on, "I wouldn't dream of telling someone he had to pay his tax."

What are we to infer from this? The intimation is that Jewish identity has atrophied to the point where the concept of a tax has become absurd. My hunch goes off in another direction: There was a time when the idea of taxes was not nearly so objectionable as it has lately become. "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society," Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, and a generation or two grew up believing that, believing that one pays one's taxes with pride, and even with gratitude.

Ha! Try to sell that one today, to a generation that has heard politician after politician insist that taxes are what the government steals from us, that the Internal Revenue Service is illegitimate and ought to be abolished. So the shift in the approach that we can employ to raise philanthropic dollars from Jews may not be the consequence of a shift in Jewish identity so much as a shift in the way we understand communal obligation.

That's not trivial, not by a long shot, but it's quite different from what we usually mean by assimilation. This isn't just about getting bigger kicks out of sitting on the board of your local symphony or your alma mater than out of meeting Israel's foreign minister or visiting an air base "somewhere in the Negev." This bespeaks a different and more profound assimilation, an often unrecognized internalization of the values of the general society.

Whether or not that concerns The New York Times, it ought concern us, and for reasons that go well beyond the condition of Jewish philanthropy. Whether as Americans or as Jews, a decline in our felt sense of civic obligation and reciprocity is a frightful prospect.