26 Billion Bucks: The Jewish Charity Industry Uncovered

Part I — Donors Give More to Israel Than to Education

Kurt Hoffman

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 24, 2014, issue of March 28, 2014.
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(page 3 of 3)

The Rest of the Iceberg

There’s still a lot missing from the sketch of the Jewish not-for-profit network offered by the Forward’s new analysis. If the 3,600 Jewish organizations that filed with the IRS are a snowy iceberg, the Jewish groups that claim a religious exemption and don’t file are the mountain hiding underwater.

The IRS doesn’t require synagogues to file tax returns. Synagogue umbrella groups aren’t required to file either, nor are elementary or high schools that are affiliated with a synagogue. Most rabbinical seminaries qualify as an “integrated auxiliary” of a synagogue or group of synagogues, meaning that they don’t file either.

It’s impossible to say how many such Jewish groups there are, or how much money they raise and spend. In 2010, a University of Washington professor named Paul Burstein published an analysis of a different IRS database that counted 3,495 Jewish religious organizations.

Burstein’s findings suggest that the total number of organizations in the Jewish network may actually be more than twice the number of those that file tax returns. Some of those religious groups may be small congregations with tiny budgets. But others are large: The Jewish Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, has a busy campus on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has three campuses in the United States and one in Israel.

The $12 billion to $14 billion in annual revenue, the Forward’s best estimate based on tax filings, is probably billions of dollars short of the network’s actual size.

Comparisons Difficult

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to compare the Jewish communal network with networks of charities built by other ethnic and religious groups.

In his 2010 paper, Burstein wrote that no one had conducted a comprehensive review of the charities surrounding any American religious or ethnic group. This appears to continue to be the case. Compounding the problem is that other religious and ethnic groups don’t organize their charities in the same way that the Jewish community does.

Mainline Protestant denominations, for example, conduct their charitable work through their denominational organizations, which in turn receive much of their revenue from their member churches. All these entities claim religious exemptions from the IRS’s filing requirements, so their financial data are opaque. Evangelical Protestant denominations do have large networks of affiliated nonreligious charitable groups. But no estimates appear to exist of the size of the network of these so-called para-church organizations.

What we can say is that the Jewish organizations make up a tiny fraction of the total not-for-profit sphere. All told, the groups that filed Form 990s and Form 990-EZs in 2012 reported receiving $365 billion in contributions, gifts, grants and dues after duplicate filings were excluded. Jewish groups reported getting $7.5 billion — roughly 2% of the total.

Which, fittingly, is roughly the Jewish percentage of the U.S. population.

NEXT WEEK: Government subsidizes the Jewish charity network heavily. We examine the network’s reliance on government aid through grants, charitable tax deductions and program fees.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @Joshnathankazis


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