The Champions of Charity

Late last year, the Sydney J. Weinberg Foundation, a family-run nonprofit, donated $1.1 million to the Italian Academy (aka La Casa Italiana) at Columbia University.  In appreciation, the Academy appointed Ms. Sydney H. Weinberg to the Board of Guarantors.  The Academy now has six ethnic Jewish board members plus the managing director.  The 6-story palazzo created in 1927 by the sweat and treasure of our community has zero Italian American representation, even though it is nominally owned by the Italian government.  But, this blog is not about La Casa Italiana.  Rather, I write of the awesome scope of Jewish philanthropy.

In 2014, The Forward, a liberal weekly of the Jewish community, published a series of articles entitled “The Jewish Charity Industry Uncovered.” It dealt only with secular Jewish charities, not religious ones such as synagogues and rabbinical schools.  [You should know that religious organizations – Catholic, Jewish, or whatever – are not required to file tax returns or nonprofit 990 forms.  We shall never know the income and assets of the nation’s religious groups, no doubt a phenomenal number.]

The Forward reported that the net assets of Jewish federations, schools, health/social organizations, Israel aid groups, cultural/community organizations, and defense/advocacy groups amounted to $26 billion.  Their annual revenue was about $14 billion – more than the U.S. Dept. of the Interior budget.  The Jewish charity network employs as many people as the Ford Motor Company.

These figures are staggering to anyone in the Italian American community, where hundreds or thousands of dollars in charitable give-a-ways are meant to impress. Our charitable infrastructure is negligible.  We have no schools, hospitals, nursing homes, or youth camps.  Most of our charities help a few families at a time or collect for earthquake relief for Italy.  Some have nothing to do with ethnic Italians.  New York’s Boys & Girls Towns of Italy, founded by an Irishman, integrates foreign teens into Italy.

In all fairness, we cannot compare ourselves to the Jewish community. We have no proprietary religion – we share American Catholicism with every nationality, with the Irish essentially in charge.  It was the Irish who established the Catholic schools, universities, hospitals, and the network of charities we all support.  It was they who built 90% of churches and cathedrals.  Our ancestors may have created the Catholic Church, but whatever institutions we founded here are now in the hands of others.

The Jewish charity network has made obtaining state and local subsidies a science, pumping up their income another $815 million annually. Then, there are government contracts (Medicare/Medicaid) which The Forward estimated to be $2 billion annually.  The Catholic charities may get similar government perks, but not Italian Americans – we have little to support.

Individual Jewish donations are supercharged – they propel the ethnic side as well as the religious side of their community. In fact, The Forward noted that $1.4 billion of secular donations go to Israeli-focused groups like the lobbyist AIPAC, Hadassah, Hebrew University, and Zionist organizations.  Add to this the annual $4 billion in U.S. aid given to Israel.

Jewish charities have always had all the bases covered.  I’m reminded of a United Way fund drive back in the 1980s at one of my jobs. We were asked to give an automatic donation from our paychecks.  I requested a list of charities the United Way represented.  To my astonishment, more than half the charities were Jewish, including summer camps, nursing homes, and yeshivas.  I opted to allocate my donation to the modest Italian Welfare League, the sole Italian charity on the list.

I have also seen firsthand how public money makes its way via politicians to Jewish non-profits. Recently twice-convicted (on other charges) New York State Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver insured that all the Jewish service organizations in his Lower Manhattan district received millions in discretionary funds.  On Long island, our Institute once requested a $5,000 grant for our Aurora Education Program from an Italian American state assemblyman and was refused.  He later gave $40,000 to a Young Israel temple.

The power of Jewish charities is a wonder to behold. -JLM

2 thoughts on “The Champions of Charity”

  1. Even though Italian Americans can’t muster the financial clout of Jewish Americans (what other group can?), we do have an impressive number of IA organizations. However, it appears there is virtually no national leadership that has stepped up to organize and maximize the combined efforts of these organizations. There is strength in unity everywhere it seems but in the Italian American community. Not so long ago there was a cable special on Muslim history and culture. The credits at the end included what seemed like an endless list of Muslim-American organizations which had sponsored the program. Contrast that with the PBS Italian-American series, which was not sponsored by a single Italian American organization. It is obvious we are divided and, therefore, ineffective in dealing with our issues.

  2. The power of Jewish organicity is wonder to behold…..and despite the fact that they herald from every corner of the world they overlook regional differences and unite as one people…..(no more Litvak pecking order these days)… doesn’t hurt that millennia of dedication to Talmud and its discourses have created a profound respect for education including the law that started ironically from our Classical tradition…..not to mention Rabbis had many educated children over the centuries…..however despite the fact that priests “rarely” had children I am proud of the accomplishments Southern Italians have given the world in labor, arts, media, and cuisine even if some of them capitulate to Martin Scorcese…

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