Wanted: 1 Rich Jew

I have a friend who may come into a large sum of money. Not millions, but tens of millions. Sometimes, she told me, she daydreams about all the charities and causes she’ll donate to.

“That’s what I want to be, one of those people who sits around all day and gives out money,” she said.

It’s also exactly the sort of person that her current un-rich self has always sought out, a person who could give to causes that she favors, like her children’s school.

That makes my philanthropist-in-waiting both all too rare and all too common. Rare because just 6 percent of Jewish megadonors give to Jewish causes, according to the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. An institute study found that between 1995 and 2000, of the $5.3 billion given by Jewish megadonors ($10 million or above in one year), only $318 million went to specifically Jewish causes.

But she’s all too common because she, like so many others, is always searching, waiting for that one big donor who will make her own organizational dream come true.

The hope for the One Rich Jew may not be as old as the messianic dream, but it is at least as fervent.

Last month, the leaders of a new Israeli charity came to visit me. They had flown from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, and it wasn’t, they made clear, to see Disneyland.

“Who do you know,” they asked, “who will want to help us?”

I’d fielded exactly the same plea from the man who sought a cure for a rare neurological disease that afflicts many Ashkenazim; he had been in the week before; and from members of a new synagogue the week before that. And from the woman who hopes to create a new nonprofit think tank.

They all wanted to find One Rich Jew.

“You and everybody else,” I told them all.

The desire is understandable. We live in a large Jewish community, many of whose members have done quite well, to put it mildly. On the Los Angeles Business Journal’s list of the 50 richest Angelenos, four of the top five happen to be Jewish. Their estimated net worth is $23.7 billion. It is incomprehensible to those who need a few grand to print brochures why the rich won’t just fork it over.

I know the feeling, as when I arrived at a bake sale a few weeks back with my little tray of brownies. I was told to put them on a table in the host’s garage. Beside the table was a new Ferrari. Sure, a couple of us parents wondered why we were baking sweets at 2 a.m., then shlepping across town to deliver them and standing around trying to make change for endless $20s, when this woman could ditch the Ferrari for, say, a top-of-the-line Volvo, and donate the spare $120,000 to the cause. That would cover 10 years worth of budget for the group that my brownies are propping up.

It’s not like that One Rich Jew is elusive or mysterious. They live among us, they just don’t seem to give us enough money.

How much is enough? Were I in their shoes, or wallets, what would I do? Who are we to tell them how much to give?

These are fair questions. The truth is, Jewish charitable contributions add up to staggering numbers. Private Jewish charitable foundations in the U.S. control some $30 billion in assets, and give about $2.5 billion annually, according to Mark Charendoff of Jewish Funders Network. The skein of Jewish philanthropies, from synagogues and schools to Friends of This and Federation of That, exists only because wealthy people have stepped up.

But need forever outstrips supply, and the refrain I hear, week in and week out, is, “If only we could find One Rich Jew….”

I am no expert, but I’ve developed three ideas to share:

1. The One Rich Jew wants to give.

He’s looking for a good cause, a good reason, a good story. A few of them believe you can take it with you, but most know better. “The Almighty has been good to us,” Irving Stone, the founder of American Greetings, the world’s largest publicly held greeting card company, once told a reporter. “You can only eat three meals a day.” Presented with an inspiring tale, an opportunity to extend a legacy beyond this life, and a chance to make a real difference, most donors will say yes.

2. It’s not your money, it’s his/her money.

The One Rich Jew didn’t make money for you to tell him how he should spend it. It’s true that a few of the superwealthy will give to causes, in the words of the late Jewish Agency exec Moshe Shertok, “as uncaringly as cows give milk,” but most cannot be guilted or bullied into philanthropy. For them, especially for the younger donor generation, philanthropy is an investment — in humanity, in medicine, in Judaism — and they need to see the hard logic behind the touted pay-off.

3. The One Rich Jew doesn’t date, he marries.

It takes a solid introduction, a good first meeting, a long courtship, and then a good, steady relationship. Ask the people over at the Friends of Ben-Gurion University, whose decades-long relationship with the Marcus family of Southern California led to a $200 million donation earlier this year, the largest single gift ever made to an Israeli university.

Of course, outside the wealth and glamour exists a world of need that can be met for far less than $200 million. In these places, $25 or $100 can go a long way. Perhaps we should also look in the mirror, and ask if that One Not-So-Rich Jew has given all he can.