All Charitable Giving is a Jewish Act

tzedakah boxI am perplexed when I hear Jewish professionals shaking their heads when they hear of a Jewish donor who has given to the local symphony, an African aid organization, or a university instead of to a “traditional” Jewish cause.

by Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

Do you remember getting ready to go to Hebrew school and checking to make sure you had money to give to tzedaka? I remember the ritual of passing around the tezedaka box and hearing each clink, clink, as our loose change hit the bottom of that blue and white can. I remember asking the teacher how many trees in Israel we would be able to buy with our change, or how many poor children we would be able to feed. Learning that Jews help others and give back is a central theme in Jewish education.

Of course, this is not surprising. Jews have been dedicated to taking care of others and giving back to society at large since we were admonished in the Torah to take care of the poor, the widow and the orphan. Deuteronomy (15:7-8) teaches: “If, however, there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” The Jewish community has done an amazing job educating Jews about their need to give to charity. Every Jewish child, regardless of denomination, in every Jewish educational setting learns about the need to give tzedaka.

It is not surprising then that according to the National Study of American Jewish Giving, Jews as a group have one of the higher levels of giving of any group in the United States, and that this giving goes to both the organized Jewish community and to other causes.

As a rabbi, I am extremely proud that Jews give to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes. Regardless of where the charitable gift is given, the act of giving itself is a Jewish act. The Talmud in Gittin 61 states: “Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead to create peace in the community.” Giving should not just be limited to giving to the Jewish community. The phrase “to create peace in the community” probably meant, at the time it was written, that Jews should take care of non-Jews in order to have good relations with the larger sometime hostile gentile community. However, with today’s interconnected world, creating “peace in the community” can literally mean world peace. Working to help everyone in the world to be fed, healthy, and honorably buried will in actuality cut down on war and strife between people. By giving in a larger sense, we can really fulfill the prophet’s vision that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:3-4)

So I am perplexed when I hear Jewish professionals shaking their heads when they hear of a Jewish donor who has given to the local symphony, an African aid organization, or a university instead of to a “traditional” Jewish cause. Yes, I understand that a local synagogue, federation or JCC would like to be the recipient of a large gift from a Jewish donor. But we often forget that the act of giving itself is a Jewish act, it is part and parcel of that person living out their Jewish identity and should be recognized as such. After all, we taught them how important it is to give in our synagogues and schools.

So let us celebrate Jewish giving and not make distinctions between those giving to Jewish and non-Jewish causes. In fact making this distinction has a very real negative effect. It creates yet another line between “us – the good Jews” and “them – the bad Jews.” It pushes people, especially younger people away. The Talmud in Baba Bathra 9a teaches: “Charity is equal in importance to all other commandments combined.” The text states “charity,” meaning all charity – not just charity to the Jewish community. “It is equal to … all the other commandments combined” means giving is more important than going to shul on Shabbat and studying Torah. In our surveys of Jewish life, if we measured commitment to Judaism by how much tzedaka people give, then a much higher percentage of Jews would be seen as living active Jewish lives.

In the case of charitable giving, “we” the leaders of the Jewish community have had astonishing success teaching a core Jewish value which people take to heart and act on. Let us continue to teach this fundamental Jewish value and celebrate all charitable giving.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership where she works to nurture and develop a network of rabbis with a shared vision to make Jewish wisdom available to anyone looking to enrich his or her life. This essay was commissioned to accompany the September 3, 2013 release of Connected to Give, the first in a series of reports published by Jumpstart on the first-ever nationwide study of the charitable behaviors and motivations of American Jews.

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  1. Cathy Grossman says

    You already know the answer to why people are concerned. It’s built in to this sentence of yours: “After all, we taught them how important it is to give in our synagogues and schools. ” If these young charitably minded Jews do not include Jewish institutions, along with their very-Jewish-acts to address world hunger, the environment or social justice issues, then those places that reinforce the Jewish imperative to philanthropy will die away.

  2. Gary Aidekman says

    Rabbi…we can celebrate our success in teaching and the success of those who have learned the lesson of Tikkun Olam / Repair the World (universal). But there is little doubt that the lesson of Areyvut Hadadit / Jewish Mutual Responsibility (particular) is often not taught and frequently not learned. While I don’t believe the ultimate tragedy Ms. Grossman predicts will occur, I do agree our institutions, our People and ultimately the world will suffer if we do not actively work to restore our Jewish value of mutual responsibility.

    I don’t believe we need to worry about internal grousing about a gift to a university or hospital resulting in young Jews not identifying as Jews or engaging. We should be concerned that we have failed to instill a core value on caring for ones fellow Jew where ever he or she may be. If that value is not in a young Jew the chances for lasting engagement are diminished. Until our institution directly address the inculcation of this value we will see both the value and the strength of those institutions erode.

  3. Yossi Prager says


    Reading your piece alongside mine from yesterday (, I agree that Jewish giving has to be defined broadly to include all giving that advances the Divine imperative to the Jewish people. However, I believe that distinctions should be made; not all causes are equal. First, aid to Africa and the symphony may not equally advance the Jewish mission. Second, for reasons laid out in my post (I called them Family First and the Hillel Paradigm), I believe that Jews have a special responsibility for particularistic causes. Do you feel differently?

  4. Scott Aaron says

    I once worked for a Jewish family foundation that was having a real generational tussle over their Jewish giving versus “other” giving. I took the same tack as Rebecca regarding tzedakkah when asked not because all giving is equal but because all giving is Jewishly affirmative if given with a consciousness and consideration of Jewish values. Those values include sometimes prioritizing a Jewish recipient (a crisis in Israel, resettlement of Jews from places of danger, Jewish genetic disease testing for example) and sometimes prioritizing a general or even clearly non-Jewish recipient (Katrina victims, Indonesian tsunami victims, environmental conservation) for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that instilling the value and determinants of giving as a Jewish one rather that focusing on the final recipient’s identity or cause as Rebecca suggests allows our philanthropic professionals and lay leaders to start with a common language with our more globalized, universalistic upcoming generation and educate them towards increased Jewish-recipient giving as they grow in their own knowledge and expertise about the world and the Jewish commitment to it.

  5. says

    You’ve brought Talmudic sources to support the notion that Jewish giving is universal, but have not discussed the matter of priority in giving, as expressed in Bava Metzia 71a that “the poor in your own city take precedence”.

    The definition of “Jewish giving” depends on the giver, and many givers see *all* their charity, no matter where it is directed, as an expression of their Jewishness.

    Perhaps the objection is not about giving to Africa “instead of” to a Jewish cause, but rather an objection to the relative *priorities* in giving? Can someone fully satisfy their obligation to give by supporting the fight against disease in Africa, but ignoring the poverty of Jews in their own country or in Israel?