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Digging Into Jewish Charities On #AccountabilityMonday

Four years ago, Forward reporter Josh Nathan-Kazis embarked on an ambitious project: a comprehensive survey of the financial workings of the Jewish charitable sector in the U.S. Entitled “$26 Billion Bucks” — the net assets of the Jewish community’s federations, schools, health care organizations and other not-for-profit groups that publicly report their finances — Josh’s series analyzed a tax-exempt communal apparatus that operates on the scale of a Fortune 500 company.

Despite all the rhetoric about the importance of Jewish education, this apparatus still dedicates the largest share of its donor dollars to Israel-related causes, Josh found — 38% to Israel, 20% to education.

“It’s an apparatus that benefits massively from the U.S. federal government and many state and local governments, in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in government grants, billions in tax-deductible donations and billions more in program fees paid for with government funds,” he wrote. “And it’s an apparatus that requires vast resources to support itself, spending $2.3 billion a year on management and fundraising — and $93 million on galas alone.”

The spine of these stories was a list of more than 2,000 Jewish charities that Josh painstakingly compiled in an Excel spread sheet. Because of the work involved, and the concern that competitors might use (or misuse) the data, we kept that list private.

How journalism has changed.

Thanks to new, widely available tools, a more collaborative culture, and a desire to operate more openly, the Forward launched an accountability project today that explicitly invites readers to engage with us in our work — work we do on your behalf. And that list we so carefully kept under wraps? It’s available online in a Google spread sheet to anyone who wants to join in.

As Josh told me, in the past “we chose to keep the document secret for good reasons. Now the way we think about it has changed. Our reporting has evolved with the tools.”

Our project inviting readers to help us review the tax filings of Jewish charities is part of an exciting development in our profession, where the tools of social media, crowd-sourcing and collaborative documentation enable reporters to partner with readers to collect and verify information. David Farenthold employed these tools in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work for the Washington Post documenting abuses at Donald Trump’s foundation. ProPublica not only uses these engagement techniques in its prize-winning reporting, but also gladly shares the ideas with other journalists. (The Forward, included.)

While some larger news organization create sophisticated tools, this new form of investigative journalism doesn’t depend on them. All Josh needed was a Google account, an active Twitter feed and a supportive boss (news editor Helen Chernikoff.)

There are risks, of course, but they can be mitigated. Exposing your work to the public as it’s in process may encourage others to copy it or try to influence the outcome. I can’t prevent the first scenario, but the simple way to guard against the second is to do basic journalism. Any information that a reader passes along will be independently verified and placed into context before it makes its way into a published story.

And the benefits far outweigh the risks. Already since this morning, scores of readers have said they will participate and review tax filings made public on the form 990. We hope that many more will join in — especially to look at charities outside the Northeast Acela corridor, so that we can fully cover the landscape of American Jewish institutions.

There are enormous pressures and challenges facing media today, and Jewish journalism is in the thick of it. But I am energized by the possibilities of working more closely with our readers to enable the Forward to be the watchdogs our community deserves.

We launched this project today timed to be part of #AccountabilityMonday, the prequel to #GivingTuesday. The not-for-profit sector does enormous good in our community. Those who donate — and all of us, who indirectly support tax-exempt institutions — should have confidence that our money is being used wisely. Help us ensure that it is.

Following up on Facebook. Last week, I linked to a column I wrote on November 16, lamenting Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s fall from grace and how it belied the “Jewish values” she had trumpeted at other times in her life.

I quoted her statement that she didn’t know anything about the aggressive PR firm Facebook had hired to debase and steamroll its critics, Definers Public Affairs. Its tactics included making anti-Semitic claims about the billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.

I wrote then that Sandberg’s statement “strained credulity.”

I was too kind.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving — one of the quietest media moments on the entire calendar — Sandberg wrote that indeed, some of Definers’ work “was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.” In other words, she damn well knew of Definers and what they were doing.

Sadly, I see no reason to believe anything else she says.

What else I’ve been reading. The Columbia Journalism Review last week published a lovely piece by Shira Hanau of the New York Jewish Week on the special aspects of reporting on the Pittsburgh massacre for Jewish media. In it, our Aiden Pink recalled being assigned to cover services the morning after the attack.

“Being able to talk to the people there, knowing the structure of the service, knowing what was going on, having a shared vocabulary made it easier,” he recounted.

The Sara Conference. In 1939, Nazi Germany required all Jewish women to take the name “Sara” in their official documents. (Men were forced to add “Israel.”) Today in London, the first-ever Sara Conference took place, examining the specific and often terrifying ways that Jewish women are still subject to anti-Semitic harassment, and discussing steps to address it.

A major survey released at the conference showed that Jewish women lawmakers face disproportionate levels of anti-Semitic abuse online. Female Jewish politicians, the research showed, were 15% more likely to be targeted by Stormfront, a leading far right website, than male politicians.

For all the justified focus on anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labor Party, it’s important not to ignore the threats from the other end of the spectrum of hate.

Looking forward. With that in mind, I’ll be speaking on what is driving anti-Semitism in 2018 at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” summit in Manhattan next Monday morning, on a panel with historian Deborah Lipstadt and journalist Bret Stephens.

Tonight, I will moderate a discussion on Jews in the modern world — just a small subject! — with the brilliant Rabbi Shai Held and the equally brilliant Rabbi David Ellenson at B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side. Join us!

And if that weighty topic is too much for you, mosey on down to the Center for Jewish History where my colleague Dan Friedman will moderate a conversation on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with Noah Gardenswartz, a writer for the hit show, and Grace Overbeke, a literary advisor. Click here for more information.

There still are a few spaces available to attend the Forward’s annual gala on December 5, this year celebrating “Fearless Women in Journalism” — including Jill Abramson, Dana Bash, Marge Magner, Lynn Povich, and yours truly. It will be an extraordinary event, I promise.

This column is part of the weekly Jane Looking Forward series. If you would like to receive it in your inbox, to sign-up. And, remember to email me at [email protected]. with your questions and concerns. Thank you!


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