Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Jacob Berkman, The Fundermentalist

As his alter ego on the JTA blog, The Fundermentalist, Jacob Berkman gives us all the dirt on Jews who get and give money to other Jews. We like to think of him as the Page Six of the Jewish … Read More

By / June 16, 2010

As his alter ego on the JTA blog, The Fundermentalist, Jacob Berkman gives us all the dirt on Jews who get and give money to other Jews. We like to think of him as the Page Six of the Jewish non-profit world, except a little classier.

Why do you think The Fundermentalist is important to the Jewish (and non-Jewish) community?

Covering the Jewish nonprofit world is something like writing about the inner workings of one big crazy family. Each member of the family really, really wants to do whatever he or she can to either keep the family healthy in the present, or to make sure that the family lives on in good health for generations to come. The problem is that despite a fairly large family fortune there isn’t quite enough cash to allow for each and every family member to carry out his or her good intention. So, the desire to save the family leaves a good number of family members wishing the others were dead.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some absolutely wonderful Jewish nonprofits out there that really do a lot of good. There are also some really lousy Jewish nonprofits out there that waste a lot of money. And they are all fighting for the same money, which can create a pretty ugly underbelly. The Fundermentalist doesn’t really seek to expose the underbelly. We prefer to write about the kishkes – what makes this whole thing work.   

Why is this important for the broader world?

It just so happens that this little family counts among its members some of the world’s most philanthropic citizens. Giving USA estimates that Americans gave just more than $300 billion to charity last year. Of that, we can safely assume that at least $4 billion went to overtly Jewish causes. And once we start talking about Jews who give money to the "outside world" the numbers are absolutely astounding. To put it in perspective. Three Jews – Stanley Druckenmiller, George Soros and Michael Bloomberg – gave away more than $1 billion between the three of them last year.

If you had to define yourself in just one word, what would it be? 

Fundermentalated.

How about five words?

I’d like a VW microbus.

How did you get involved as JTA’s chief philanthropy correspondent? The backstory of the Fundermentalist is a lot like that of Superman… Without the foreign planet, the allergy to kryptonite and the super powers. Oh, and my Fortress of Solitude is in a walkup in Park Slope, and my real parents are alive and well and living in Miami.

But in seriousness – and sorry in advance for mixing comic book metaphors – my editor, Ami Eden, likes to say that he is my Stan Lee. And it’s pretty much true. Before he got to JTA, I was more of a general assignment reporter who had a knack for writing about the Jewish federation system. Ami thought we should scrap everything else, hyper focus on the federations and Jewish nonprofits and turn me into an expert on Jewish philanthropy – and that we should try to tell the story of the Jewish nonprofit world in a way that was really readable and kinda fun. That became The Fundermentalist.

(And just to clarify, The Fundermentalist is the blog, Jacob Berkman is the Fundermentalist, and I rarely refer to myself in the third person.)

What is one thing (summary, anecdote, project result, success, failure, or whatever else comes to mind) that you feel has defined your life and/or career so far?

In the middle of a pretty heated interview about how some big money may have been mis-spent, the top lay leader of a major Jewish organization yelled at me, "Who the fuck do you think you are, the White Knight?" What makes you Jewcy?

I am not the White Knight. I’m the Fundermentalist. I can read your IRS 990 Tax Form….. with my mind.