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Bittersweet Charity

In a recent issue of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues, Debra Mesch, director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, together with colleagues, has published an article called "Does Jewish Philanthropy Differ by Sex and Type of Giving?"  This kind of title tends to turn a potential reader into a pillar of salt—but if you are serious about the future of the American Jewish community and its values, you'll want to look at Mesch's findings about the connection between intermarriage and generosity.

Relevant Links
Jewish Philanthropy 2.0  Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily. Jewish mega-donors support many worthwhile causes, few or none particularly Jewish. Some even support anti-Jewish and anti-Israel causes.
Religious Faith and Charitable Giving  Arthur C. Brooks, Policy Review. Believers give more to secular charities than non-believers do.
The Good Society  Micha Odenheimer, Eretz Acheret. Faithfulness to one’s own is a prerequisite for a commitment to humanity: an interview with Michael Walzer.
We Are One?  Steven M. Cohen, Jack Wertheimer, Commentary. Today’s charitable campaigns conspicuously soft-pedal the collective rhetoric of peoplehood, as a result of which, both dollars and donors are in decline. (2006, PDF)
Tzedakah, Inc.  Tevi Troy, eJewishPhilanthropy. How are the philanthropic interests of the growing Orthodox community likely to evolve?

The epistomologist Will Rogers once observed that "it isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so."  This is the principle driving modern survey research, which probes, measures, and hypothesizes about human opinions and behaviors that most people think are just common sense.  When survey researchers want to explain why this sort of thing is useful, they sometimes point to Samuel Stouffer.

Working for the U.S. military during World War II, Stouffer surveyed American servicemen about everything from class and racial attitudes to their levels of fear under different types of enemy fire.  His findings became a multi-volume work called The American Soldier.  People like historian Arthur Schlesinger dismissed it as a series of "ponderous demonstrations" of the obvious.  For example, the more educated the soldier, the more difficult his adjustment to military life.  Southern soldiers coped better than Northerners with Pacific island heat.  White privates sought promotions to sergeant more than blacks did.  Southern black enlistees preferred Southern white officers to Northern whites.

These were obvious social facts—except that they weren't true.  As sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld noted in a famous review of Stouffer's study, the surveys actually found the opposite.  Poorly educated soldiers had more, not fewer, adjustment problems.  Southerners couldn't stand the heat any better than Northerners.  Blacks wanted promotions more than whites and, in rating officers, showed no preference for white Southern charm.

Garbage in, garbage out: Before you try to explain something, you should make sure you know the facts about what the "something" is.

We do know certain things that are relevant to the "something" that constitutes Jewish philanthropy.  Studies show that American Jews give proportionately more than other Americans, especially when it comes to large gifts.  Almost three-quarters of Jewish contributions go to non-religious causes, and Jews disproportionately give in order to meet basic human needs like food and shelter.

But we don't know much about the role of gender and sex in Jewish philanthropy.  We know that women are, in general, more generous than men; that when donors are studied as couples, male-female pairs give more than same-sex pairs; and that when married couples make joint decisions about their charitable contributions, the decisions reflect the husband's preferences more than the wife's.  But the most comprehensive study of American Jewish philanthropy found that sex did not make much of a difference.

Mesch and her colleagues have gone considerably farther.  In a sophisticated survey, they divided a sample into various types of household groups.  They covered the waterfront—Jewish couples, non-Jewish couples, Jewish man and non-Jewish woman, Jewish woman and non-Jewish man, and singles—Jewish and non-Jewish, male and female.  Despite the small size of the U.S. Jewish population, the researchers managed to create groups large enough to make some statistically significant distinctions.

When the researchers asked each household about its religious and secular giving over a number of years, they found some things that were consistent with previous studies.  Couples with at least one Jewish member were about as likely as non-Jewish couples to give to religious causes, but the Jewish-member couples were a full 20 percent more likely to give to secular causes.  The pattern was the same among singles: Jews and non-Jews gave to religious causes at about the same rate, but Jews gave significantly more for non-religious purposes.

Then the researchers looked at religious and non-religious giving through a finer lens, controlling for just about every plausible demographic variable—household income, wealth, and education; age, number of children, and age of youngest; employment status, region of the country, and even health.  The results on religious giving were only moderately interesting.  Intermarried couples give less than either fully Jewish or fully non-Jewish households to religious causes; any other result would have suggested that there was something screwy about the data.

More interesting was the question of secular giving.  In this area of giving, there would be no reason for religiously intermarried couples to be inherently less likely to give.  But the researchers found that intermarried couples consisting of a Jewish wife and a non-Jewish husband were less likely to give than any other kind of household (except for non-Jewish single men, who gave at about the same rate).

As for the amounts of the gifts that the households did make, couples made up of Jewish husbands and non-Jewish wives gave 118 percent more than the Jewish wives and non-Jewish husbands.  Jewish couples gave 76 percent more.  Non-Jewish couples gave 52 percent more.  Singles gave more, by anywhere from almost 30 percent to 167 percent.  The researchers did other analyses that divided the types of giving along different lines, but the finding remained: Jewish women married to non-Jewish men gave less than any other type of household.

This is a new fact, and it should make us ask new questions.  Does this happen because these couples become separated from Jewish fundraising networks, which have traditionally relied on male-to-male connections?  Are Jewish women who marry non-Jewish men particularly prone to adopt non-Jewish norms, which are less charitable than Jewish norms?

One thing of which the researchers are confident is that more research is needed.  One thing the rest of us should face is that the Jewish charitable impulse, of which we are so proud and which we take so much for granted, may be more tenuous than we have recognized.  Bonds can be broken.  The connections that underlie charity may be among them.

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anna on December 8, 2011 at 1:22 pm (Reply)
Not everyone seeks out specifically Jewish charities, and fundraising lists are often made by finding people to solicit who have Jewish last names. Presumably, many of the intermarried Jewish women changed their last names. I think it says more that the couples made of two Jews give more than that one set of intermarried couples gives more than the other.
Vulcan Alex on December 8, 2011 at 8:02 pm (Reply)
Surveys are not that accurate. Some don't give (or even know) accurate responses, and the assumptions of why the inaccurate data leads to inaccurate results and conclusions.
Tony Little on December 9, 2011 at 10:03 pm (Reply)
Wonderful article. As a young Nat Am growing up in Arizona, I noticed that the Jewish population was the only group that showed me true humanity. I am now board chairman of World Wide Jewish Missions, an organization that not only brings the Torah back to Jews who have never been exposed to it but supports any and all organizations that keep Gen 12:3 near and dear to their heart. We openly acknowledge that if not for the Jews, we gentiles would not have our Bible or Love letters from our creator, nor would we have our Messiah. Shabbat Shalom

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