Jewish Education / Jews in America / Philanthropy / Tzedakah

“Are there assumptions – correct or incorrect – in Jewish communal life that ‘the community’ is supposed to be the principal fiduciary in the financial needs of Jewish households?”

I’ve been thinking about the implied economy in educational institutions, especially as it is understood in the financial aid/tuition assistance process. Ostensibly, when a person or family requests financial aid or a tuition reduction, they are primarily driven by their own financial needs. At the same time, there always has to be an implicit trade-off that this family is accepting as part of their request, because, by definition, the family has to know that there is a limited pot of funds that have to be allocated across the community of members. This implied trade-off that the family is accepting boils down to (I think) four options: 1) The family believes it has a better case than other applicants for its portion of the available aid – in other words, an internal competition among the stakeholders for the limited resources; 2) The family is willing to accept that the school offer an inferior product because there will be less total revenue; 3) The family believes that the school should be able to be more efficient with its revenue, i.e. should provide more for less (this is kind of an optimistic/unrealistic version of #2); or 4) The family believes that the burden of supporting the institution should shift from the bulk of its paying customers and onto the shoulders of “Philanthropy” – most likely, the wealthier other customers of the school, but also including Big Philanthropy outside the walls of the institution. In this last model, it is kind of like the frequently-untold story of programs like Birthright. It is well-known that the program is “free” and that the culture of “free” has had pernicious effects on the market and whether Jewish education and engagement can charge for its services (pace David Bryfman.) But of course it is not actually “free;” it is just that a few people and foundations are shouldering a huge burden and displacing the costs from the end user to the philanthropic sector.

So first, I am curious what people think about the calculus that is implied for most families or individuals – to the extent that they think beyond their own needs as part of this onerous and often embarrassing process of asking for aid, what is implied of these choices on the other end?

And my second question is — if it is #4, as I believe it is, what is driving the widespread belief that “philanthropy” is supposed to shoulder this disproportionate share of the costs of leading a Jewish life? Is it a kind of implicit response to growing wealth and income gaps? Does it have to do with the ways that philanthropic foundations have become so dominant, in some ways by their own doing, in the Jewish ecosystem, such that people believe them to be public trusts in a different way than before? Are there assumptions – correct or incorrect – in Jewish communal life that “the community” is supposed to be the principal fiduciary in the financial needs of Jewish households? And what happens if – as it seems to be the case – the Jewish households expect that philanthropy takes care of their domestic needs (basic Jewish education, food/housing costs, etc.) but philanthropy is more interested in Jewish issues well outside the households of its core members?

Yehuda Kurtzer, Facebook post (1 February 2018) [https://www.facebook.com/yehuda.kurtzer/posts/10156225116802174]