American Jewish Giving and Engagement in the First Year of COVID-19

Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

COVID-19 presented an unprecedented challenge for non-profit institutions. Alongside many other agencies, Jewish philanthropic institutions and their donors mobilized quickly to meet the immediate and long-term needs created by the pandemic and to sustain communal engagement. The characteristics of American Jewish giving and engagement in times of emergency and crisis are the focus of this essay, which presents trends and data on Jewish philanthropy during 2020. The essay provides an analysis of the roles and responsibilities of Jewish philanthropy during the COVID-19 crisis. Communal and individual efforts aimed at meeting immediate social and welfare needs, including the elimination of disparities that intensified during the pandemic. These efforts attested to the unique practices developed by American Jewish philanthropies over time and implemented during emergencies.

Jewish philanthropy and grantmaking within and outside the Jewish community during COVID-19 have been motivated by Jewish values. As ethno-religious philanthropy, Jewish giving consists of multiple elements of faith-based ethnic, national, cultural, and economic traditions. These include supporting and amplifying congregational services and programming; providing funds to sustain community institutions, such as the Jewish Federation, advocacy organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, and organizations focused on supporting Israel; supporting organizations aiming to ensure the welfare and survivability of Jews across the world, such as the Joint Distribution Committee; providing infrastructure and foundational support for the provision of social services to local Jewish and non-Jewish communities, and more. Charitable giving by Jewish organizations and the engagement efforts of communal organizations during the first year of COVID-19 allowed the Jewish community to sustain its philanthropic tradition while supporting charitable causes based on need and not on affinity.

How Will You Move Forward

"How will you move forward," American Jewish Museum, Washington D.C.


The first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown in the US triggered public debate about the role that Jewish philanthropies and communal institutions can assume in their response to the needs created by the pandemic. In March 2020, Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute raised several issues he feared would hinder communal philanthropic efforts aimed at meeting COVID-19 needs. Kurtzer noted the weaknesses of the historical system of Jewish umbrella organizations and their record of leading collective mobilization within the Jewish community, suggesting that the characteristics of that system could jeopardize fundraising and allocating efforts in response to the pandemic. He warned against duplication of communal efforts, rising competition between Jewish organizations, and a lack of a comprehensive response to new and existing needs. Kurtzer suggested that the effect of COVID-19 on organizations providing services and supporting programs within the Jewish community could lead to economic insecurity and a decline in various forms of philanthropic investment, such as donor-advised endowment funds, resulting in fewer allocations and a general inclination toward low-risk allocations. In his words, “We are on the verge of a Jewish communal economic collapse, and our leaders and our institutions require our support.”

Kurtzer encouraged communal institutions and major philanthropies to come together in a collective mobilization focused on COVID-19 relief. Traditionally, this type of collective response has been the bread and butter of the Jewish philanthropic community for over a century. In other words, the generosity of the US Jewish community coupled with its unique giving patterns and philanthropic behavior reflect Jewish identity and connectedness in a significant way.

Traditionally, communal fundraising and allocating efforts have been carried out within the framework of central Jewish communal organizations such as Jewish federations, regional organizations that serve as a source of reliable information, data, and assessment of needs. These unique organizations exemplify the tradition of charitable giving of the Jewish community as a group effort and provide trusted vehicles for the transfer of philanthropic dollars to the places where they are most needed. Many Jewish philanthropic institutions in North America take a largely nonreligious approach to Jewish social action, making ideological positions and Jewish values the basis for collective Jewish action. Jewish philanthropy has also been a leading expression of the connection of donors with the Jewish community.

Jewish philanthropy during COVID-19

Communal and private philanthropies have supported communities seeking to mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19 using discretionary grantmaking. These foundations prioritized community responses, and their grantmaking was characterized by flexibility, speed, adaptive criteria, and diversity.

In the American Jewish community, we witnessed similar collective and individual efforts during the first year of COVID-19. Local, national, and international organizations assumed their traditional roles and responsibilities within the Jewish community and across other communities. To assess the scope and breadth of these efforts, I collected data on pledges to COVID-19-related needs and issues, seeking to include all Jewish grantmaking between March and December 2020. The scope included all grants and emergency funds that Jewish organizations within the sample made explicitly in response to the pandemic. Where available, I collected data for each donation or group of contributions, including the amount, the date when the grant was announced or given, and whether the pledge was fulfilled in its entirety.

The data also include the recipient names or the name of the emergency fund created at the recipients' locations, and whether or not the recipient was classified as a Jewish cause. Additionally, I conducted a series of in-depth conversations with executives at 15 private foundations and 5 community foundations and federations to reach a broader understanding of giving trends, donations, and innovation during the research period. I conducted additional interviews with philanthropy experts to discuss and compare research methods for tracking and analyzing philanthropic commitments during COVID-19 by US-based organizations.

I focused on the largest Jewish private foundations, community foundations, Jewish federations, and nonprofit organizations. Overall, I investigated 266 organizations, of which 82 (31%) pledged COVID-19-related funding between March and December of 2020. These included 55 private foundations that pledged over 80% of their allocations, 13 federations, 8 community foundations, and additional organizations engaged in grantmaking. Although many organizations did not report all the details related to their giving, and some distributed smaller grants and donations, the study captured a substantial share of Jewish giving to causes related to COVID-19 in 2020.

In 2020, American Jewish philanthropies responded to the challenges that the pandemic posed to American and global society by providing more than $1 billion to local needs. Moreover, they directed the majority of those funds outside the Jewish community. As COVID-19 affected nations and communities, it led Jewish organizations to strengthen their tradition of supporting charitable causes based on need and not on affinity. The first year of the pandemic has shown that when it comes to philanthropy and grantmaking, the Jewish community is motivated by universal values of chessed, tzedakah, social justice, and repairing the world from a nonsectarian perspective.

American Jewish giving to COVID-related causes amounted to $1.09 billion, which constitutes nearly 5% of global giving in response to COVID-19 in 2020. Pledged funds were donated in response to the needs created by the pandemic. Top givers included the Foundation to Promote Open Society and Bloomberg Philanthropies, both among the top 22 COVID-19 response givers worldwide, as well as the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, and the UJA Federation of New York. The amount of $367 million (34%) was pledged to Jewish causes and organizations, including causes in Israel, $664 million (61%) to non-Jewish causes, and $57 million (5%) not classified. This is consistent with the distribution of American Jewish philanthropy (i.e., non-emergency/relief philanthropy) in general.

Giving was highest in April ($418 million), followed by March ($168 million), and October ($82 million). This is consistent with the patterns of Jewish-giving peaking during the High Holidays and Passover. The states receiving the most aid were New York ($149 million), California ($122 million), Illinois ($35 million), and Georgia ($22 million).

The funds dedicated to immediate relief included P.P.E., emergency health funds, anything related to COVID testing, mid- and long-term support for health-related recovery funds, assistance for healthcare workers, hospital-related infrastructure costs, medical research, pantries, prepared meals, shelters, rental assistance, cash assistance, interest-free loans, career services, economic development, funds for small business, and more. In addition, funds were dedicated to welfare assistance, mental health services, social services, other support for basic needs, and educational support including funds for Jewish schools, remote learning/working infrastructure, scholarships, and tutoring.

International pledges were highest for South Africa, Israel, and the UK. Some $14.7 million were pledged to Israeli causes by 10 organizations, including the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Russell Barrie Foundation, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and the UJA Federation of NY. This sample does not include all gifts made to Israel, but it indicates that most Jewish philanthropies prioritized their responses to local needs stemming from the pandemic.

Engagement and philanthropy: COVID-19

Day-to-day communal life was affected during 2020 as the world went into lockdown and disconnection spread. Unique circumstances brought about new models of engagement characterized by flexibility. Within the Jewish community, emerging needs were met by Jewish philanthropic grants generating new ways to sustain Jewishness and community engagement. The pandemic highlighted the introduction of innovative forms of Jewish engagement and pro-social behavior of members and their respective communities. A report issued by the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) with the support of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Jim Joseph Foundation, and Aviv Foundation describes the unique setting for engagement during the High Holidays of 2020 in the shadow of COVID-19. Organizations adapted to the change and found new ways to engage members remotely, which resulted in new ways individuals could connect to their Jewishness.

The report details the findings from a survey of over 1,400 American Jews who assessed their experiences of the High Holidays of 2020 compared to previous years. It shows higher levels of participation during the 2020 High Holiday season by infrequent observers, who noted that they appreciated the more flexible and easier ways of participating in the High Holiday ceremonies that year because of “the introduction of new modalities and lower barriers to entry.” The majority of respondents indicated that Jewish institutions were a source of comfort during this time. Looking forward, over half of respondents reported that the experience of the pandemic made them think differently about what being Jewish means, in particular those with children under 18.

A study published by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University suggested that the expansion of online Jewish engagement opportunities created more options for those engaged and allowed them to participate in new services and programs. At the same time, the report found that online access did not generate an increase in new participants and failed to replicate in-person social environments. Time will tell whether online Jewish programs are a new long-term path for Jewish engagement.

Connection in the Time of Coronavirus Website

Connection in the Time of Coronavirus, Website launched by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life


These innovative forms of engagement are demonstrated in “Connection in the Time of Coronavirus,” a website launched by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, in March 2020. The website illustrates new forms of engagement and a digital approach to sustain a sense of belonging. It offered a live stream on Facebook every weekday, including streaming services and virtual worship opportunities, and shared online resources such as a list of congregations throughout its region. It also included Jewish learning at home resources for families without access to Sunday school; original Judaic coloring sheets and worksheets for elementary school students; a virtual tour of the Jewish South, with an interactive map; a “How to Help” resource sheet with ways to become involved from home; playlists of music relevant to the programs of the Institute, and more. This is one example of hundreds of online engagement opportunities that have emerged during 2020 and continue to function as resources for local communities.

Lessons from Jewish Philanthropy during COVID-19: Norms and values

Communal efforts to meet the needs created by COVID-19 and to provide alternatives for Jewish engagement are based on the core values of American Jewish philanthropy and its institutions. These efforts are also shaped by more recent developments in the structure and flow of organized American Jewish giving. They include changes in the prioritizing of goals supported by the Jewish community, such as Jewish continuity, Israel and Zionism, and processes of organizational change that many Jewish institutions have been undergoing in the last decade. The introduction of a new organizational culture into ongoing charitable and fundraising activities and the integration of new expressions of religious and spiritual elements into guiding values have been central to understanding recent collective philanthropic efforts. Finally, the implementation of strategic philanthropic approaches promoting impact, effectiveness, and broad participation were embedded in the Jewish philanthropic response during the first year of COVID-19. As a result, emergency response efforts moved beyond expanding the scope of giving and the number of allocations. They reflected the tradition of communal efforts on behalf of a shared cause, the strengthening of shared ethno-religious identity through these efforts, and demonstrated the renewed ability of philanthropic and communal organizations to engage in initiative building through structures of communal action.

In his analysis of collective mobilization of communal resources, Kurtzer referred to the democratic and undemocratic facets of these efforts. They were democratic because theoretically, they engaged a large part of the community and acted on behalf of the community itself. At the same time, they were anti-democratic because they empowered a small group of organizations to make choices on behalf of the community, potentially leading to the exclusion of some groups. The first year of COVID-19, as a microcosmos, showcased the ideals and values of Jewish organizations operating in the social, educational, and welfare spheres. A narrow group of philanthropic and communal organizations that are not representative of their community took on traditional responsibilities in assessing needs and prioritizing responses. This far-from-perfect system aimed to preserve the connections within the Jewish community. At the same time, the collective efforts during COVID-19 show it has not met its internal challenges that prevent it from adapting to new forms of communal giving.

The collective effort described above was based on a common sense of philanthropy and engagement, fueled by partnerships, collaboration, and shared initiatives of many organizations operating within the same niche, which enhanced its added value. This has led to the development of normative isomorphism, which is expressed through the development of value-driven behaviors and professional standards within and between these organizations, diminishing normative and professional gaps between organizations. This, in turn, has led organizations to similar behavior guided by executives motivated to adopt new forms of professionalism and bureaucracy.

During COVID-19, normative isomorphism has manifested across Jewish institutions, philanthropies, and communal organizations facing a shared challenge and a changing political climate in the US.  The early outcome of this process can be seen in the expansion of the decision makers’ circles and executive branches of the organization most vocal in the Jewish community. Another outcome of this process was the change in organizational strategy and relations with stakeholders. The circle of decision makers and executive branches in the Jewish community is starting to expand, leading to changes in the structure of hybrid governance of Jewish organizations. Organizations such as Avodah, Repair the World, Safety Respect Equity Coalition, Hazon, and others are examples to the inclusion of young individuals and Jews from sub-groups, such as those with disabilities, Jews of color, LBGTQIA, and others in the decision-making processes, a trend that has accelerated since the first year of COVID-19.

Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, PhD, is Deputy Director US at the Ruderman Family Foundation and a Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Associate Faculty at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. She completed her PhD at the School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a focus on philanthropic studies. She joined the Ruderman Family Foundation after completing a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Brandeis University, specializing in the research of Jewish philanthropy.
Return to Main Page