Old needs, new realities

Old needs, new realities

As our cover story this week reports (www.jstandard.com/content/item/granted), the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) is adopting a new way of doling out its philanthropic funds. Once, a list of communal needs, ranked in order of priority, would be drawn up. After much consultation and cogitation by appropriate committees, funds would be allocated based on need and priority.

Now, the agencies and institutions with needs must file grant proposals that will be evaluated. Money will be awarded to those grant requests that are deemed worthy.

This is a great change in the way the federation goes about funding programs in our community. What served us well as a community in the past no longer serves us well in the present, and may be even less beneficial in the future.

This story is repeated across the country. We are neither unique in this regard, nor a pioneer. We are on a well-defined road paved in the stones of 21st century reality.

We once looked to our local federations as the central address for charitable giving. Nursing homes needed operating capital; hospitals needed to defray skyrocketing costs; schools of all kinds needed tuition relief and updated teaching tools; youths needed safe and supervised outlets for socializing; the home-bound elderly and infirm needed hot meals and helpful hands; the home-less needed shelter, food, and clothing; working parents needed day care; abused wives and children needed protection. Because “all Israel are responsible one for the other,” the needs of Jews worldwide also required attention. So did the needs of the broader communities in which we lived. We understood that we could not reach every worthy cause; could not satisfy every worthy need. We also understood that we did not have the means to evaluate or prioritize.

That is why they turned to the local federation. Write one check and let the communal institution charged with all matters philanthropic take care of the rest.

Those were the days, but those days are not our days. Today, individuals want to decide where their hard-earned dollars go and what uses are being made of them. Our mailboxes – snail mail and electronic – are stuffed with direct mail appeals of all sorts, and each individual has the ability to decide where to put his or her philanthropic funds.

Meanwhile, costs spiral out of control and more money than ever is needed to fund all of those communal needs.

Simple math makes it clear why the old way is out of date. Needs climb, but donations decline. One plus one makes two; one plus one-half only makes one and one-half. That means the federations – ours and everyone else’s – are underfunded and must scale back their own giving. They cannot give out what they do not take in.

Hence, a new system was needed and, from federation to federation, the system of choice is the grant system. It may not be the best system, but it is a better one for today.

Make no mistake. The needs are great right here in our own front yards and they are not being adequately met because we – all of us as individuals – are ignoring them.

According to the 2010 census, Bergen County is the nation’s 39th-wealthiest. Arguably, it is among the wealthiest Jewsh communities in the world, as well. Yet the poverty here has been climbing steadily since the start of the new century. Passaic County is even worse off in many respects – and not just in Paterson.

According to a report this week in The Bergen Record, the number of households receiving food stamps has climbed dramatically in recent years. In Teaneck, for example, it doubled since 2005 (957 vs. 452). In Englewood, it climbed even faster – 1,129 now vs. 561 then. Also climbing dramatically is the number of homes that rely on the earned income tax credit, meant as an aid to the working poor. Sixteen Bergen municipalities have seen use of the tax credit jump by at least 25 percent. That means there are many more people classified as the working poor today than there were seven years ago. Among the municipalities with the highest increases are Tenafly and Glen Rock.

More children than ever rely on school lunch programs to provide the nourishment their parents no longer can. In Bergenfield, it stood at 17.4 percent in 2005; it is at 30.2 percent today. In neighboring Teaneck, it was 20.5 percent; now, it is 31 percent. It is no wonder that food pantries throughout northern New Jersey are inundated.

The toll on social service agencies is enormous, especially Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, and Jewish Family Service and Children’s Center of Clifton-Passaic.

For the Jewish communities of northern New Jersey, there are other vital needs, as well. Day school tuitions are out of reach for many. Families have taken out second mortgages to pay for their children’s Jewish education. After-school programs are woefully underfunded. Continuing adult Jewish education – especially the Florence Melton Adult Mini School program, which has made such a vital difference in the lives of individuals and in the community at large – hangs by a thread. As health care costs rise ever higher and income levels shrink, our long- and short-term care facilities, senior residences, and rehabilitation facilities inexplicably are forced to compete against each other for life-preserving funds.

Is it really more important to donate to a yeshivah on the west bank than it is to help pay for an elderly shut-in’s hot meal next door?

Is it really more important to endow a chair at a midwest college than to help fund a bed in a communally run nursing home?

Is it really more important to send our philanthropic dollars thousands of miles away when they are desperately needed just down the block?

We expect “the other guy” to donate to the communal pot, while we make our own choices. It turns out, as it always does, that “the other guy” is doing the same thing.

The new system JFNNJ is putting into place must work because our community desperately needs it to work. If it fails, if the needs that must be met cannot be met because the funds are not there to meet them, the only ones who will suffer will be ourselves.