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.