Are Jewish Programs Worth the Money?

The resources of the Jewish community have always been limited, and today seem scarcer than ever, so it is appropriate to evaluate how funds are spent. It is shocking, therefore, to discover how little scrutiny spending decisions are given. Too often programs are funded because they sound good, have a noble objective or serve a political, social or religious agenda. Could it be that the problems the community faces, such as Jewish continuity, interest in Israel, and access to Jewish education have gotten worse not because they’ve been ignored, but because our attempted solutions have failed? Are we repeating the mistakes of the Great Society by simply throwing money at problems?

These questions occurred to me after reading that huge amounts of money are going to be poured into programs aimed at getting young Jews to Israel. Now I believe that sending a child to Israel is one of the most important things any parent can do to strengthen their Jewish identity. I’ve said this in virtually every speech I’ve ever given. Still, I have no empirical evidence this is true. It was certainly true for me and many other people I know, but is it true for 100 percent of the kids who go to Israel? What percentage would it have to be true for to make the investment worthwhile? Ten percent? Fifty percent? Seventy-five percent?

Dozens of wonderful Israel programs have been developed that involve everything from studying in a yeshiva to scuba diving in the Red Sea. Do we know if one type of program is more effective than another? Is a program where kids are mostly interested in sex with fellow campers as good as one where boys and girls are separated? If the objective is only to get them to Israel, they’re clearly all successful; however, if the aim is to reinforce Jewish identity, provoke a love of Zion, stimulate activism and philanthropy, the results are less certain.

Large amounts of money are going into Hillel for programs to get students more involved in Jewish life. Again, from anecdotal experience I believe this is a good investment, but, as Marcela Kogan wrote in a recent Moment article, no studies have been done to show that being active in Jewish campus life translates into a commitment after graduation. Wouldn’t it be better to know if the approach is effective before spending millions of dollars on new campus outreach programs?

The same hard questions need to be asked of Jewish organizations. On one level, you could take a capitalist perspective and say that as long as the organizations are raising money — reflecting customer satisfaction — they are doing a good job. On the other hand, some other objective measures of performance should be available. For example, you might say the ADL’s mission is to combat anti-Semitism. If anti-Semitism is going down, they’re doing a good job; if it rises, they’re not. It also could be that anti-Semitism is so negligible that the ADL is unnecessary.

Similarly, how should we evaluate AIPAC? Its number one priority is to get the foreign aid package adopted each year. If this happens, it is effective. On the other hand, if aid is actually declining each year because of inflation, is the group really accomplishing its objective? Obviously, AIPAC would say that it is since it would be politically impossible to increase foreign aid.

I’ve picked examples of programs and organizations I support, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find others whose continued existence I question. I’ve been doing some research on corporate philanthropy lately and it used to be that many corporations behaved the way the Jewish community does now. If a nonprofit organization had a good idea for addressing a problem, it could attract corporate support. Today, companies want to see rigorous evaluations done of programs. Instead of describing how a program like Big Brothers/Big Sisters can theoretically help troubled kids, the case for support is made in quantifiable terms: kids skip school half as much as the general population, their grades improve and they are less likely to use drugs or alcohol.

This is the direction we should be heading. Instead of rushing to fund new programs or routinely refunding old ones, the Jewish community needs to step back and devote more time and resources to setting clear, measurable objectives, evaluating what is being done and what can be done, and demonstrating in a quantifiable, rather than anecdotal way whether goals are being met.