How Do You Think About “Jewish” Giving?

Even a small increase in particularistic giving by America’s wealthy Jews would have a transformative impact on American Jewish life.

by Yossi Prager

When Dan Brown, the wizard behind eJewishPhilanthropy, suggested that I write for Rosh Hashana about my view of the many discussions on Jewish versus non-Jewish giving, my first thought was, “How can I make the connection to Rosh Hashana?” But, once I figured that out, I was more than happy to write this post, explaining why I believe that the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish giving, as it is usually used, is misleading.

So, how does this issue relate to Rosh Hashana? Most Jewish holidays celebrate events in Jewish history: Passover, the exodus from Egypt; Shavuot, the receipt of the Torah; Purim, salvation from Haman’s evil decree; and Chanukah, the conquest of the Maccabees. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are quite different. They have, from a Jewish perspective, a universal frame. On the Days of Awe, God judges all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, and consequently decides on the quality of their lives in the coming year.

A verse from Zechariah (14:16) extends the universalistic notion to Sukkot: Zechariah mandates Sukkot as the annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for non-Jews (and Jews) during the messianic era. Similarly, the Talmudic sages explained the number of cows sacrificed over the days of Sukkot – 70 – as one cow for each of the “70 nations of the world.” Jews see our God as Sustainer of the entire universe, not just Jews. Following God’s model, as we think about what is “Jewish” giving, we should not limit the extent of our caring to Jews.

“Jewish” giving therefore is giving which stems from the divine imperative to feed the hungry, provide jobs for the unemployed, help cure the sick (and thus fund hospitals and medical research) and more generally establish a just society (which requires high- quality education for all). This imperative is not limited to Jews or to giving through Jewish institutions. A case could even be made that giving to cultural causes (museums, opera, etc.) meets a divine imperative. When I was a student at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Moshe Tendler suggested (albeit not in the context of charity law) that the Talmud supports financial investments in natural and cultural beauty that enrich life.

The upshot is that giving to Jewish poor, Jewish religious causes, Jewish education and Israel cannot be privileged on the basis that they are “Jewish,” while other causes are not. However, there is another distinction that matters: while many different kinds of philanthropy advance the Jewish mission in ways that are beneficial to people generally, only some causes advance Jews or Judaism particularly. For this Rosh Hashana, I would like to consider: Why privilege Jewish particularism? Or, more starkly, why privilege Jews?

I’ll offer two kinds of answers. The first I’ll call Family First; the second, the Hillel Paradigm.

Family First. Most of us are more likely to give to a cousin in need than to a stranger, or to give more to the cousin than to the stranger. In fact, we love our cousin notwithstanding annoying behaviors that we would not tolerate in a stranger. Jews are an extended family, and Jewish law asks us to privilege our family in our giving. Interestingly, in the Jewish law hierarchy, first come Jews in our immediate families, then other relatives, then Jews in our town, then Jews in our collective heritage home (Israel) and then Jews in other areas. Family comes first, but within the family, closer relatives and those who live among us take precedence. This makes sense; it’s hard to imagine a caring society in which wealthy families reject the pleas of family members or ignore suffering in their own community in order to support needs in other cities.

Support for Jewish education also falls into the Family First category. Every extended family has distinctive stories, traditions and even values. The Jewish family’s stories, traditions and values are embodied in the Torah, rabbinic sources and later textual (and audio-visual) resources. These resources have enabled Jews to develop as an independent civilization that has also made great and enduring contributions to the world. Our ability to make future contributions as Jews – to the Jewish civilization and the world at large – depends on the vibrancy of the institutions that educate the next generation. For this reason, even as there are many universal causes that advance the Jewish mission, Jewish education (encompassing day schools, camps, synagogues, youth groups, Israel trips and more) is the only way to perpetuate the Jewish mission.

The Hillel Paradigm. But there is a second, perhaps even more compelling, reason to support particularistic Jewish causes. As Hillel famously said in the Mishna in Avot (1:14),

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am for myself, then what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?

Hillel’s paradigm combines values-based considerations (“who am ‘I’?”) with practical concerns (“who will be for me?”). That strikes me as a useful model for setting philanthropic priorities. On the values level, many universal causes advance the Jewish mission, but there is also a practical consideration: while all of the 315 million Americans are targets for the fundraising efforts of hospitals, universities and food banks, it is highly unlikely (except to a limited degree relating to the State of Israel) that anyone but Jews will support particularistic Jewish institutions and programs. Thus, while some responsibility for universal causes rests upon Jews, Jews bear the entire responsibility for particularistic Jewish institutions. Developing philanthropic priorities is a complex process involving personal history, values, emotions, intellect, social considerations and more. To the extent that the intellect – logic – is an important factor, I believe that the Hillel Paradigm for placing Jewish particularism near the top of the priorities is compelling.

I imagine that, in writing for eJewishPhilanthropy, I am preaching mostly to the choir, professionals who devote their lives to the Jewish people. For us, maybe the most important point is to recognize that “Jewish giving” is a broader concept than giving to Jewish institutions. We should validate, rather than criticize, Jews who give to general education and medical research. At the same time, however, as we gratefully acknowledge the way in which these philanthropists are advancing the Jewish mission, we should make the case for their increasing their particularistic Jewish giving. Even a small increase in particularistic giving by America’s wealthy Jews would have a transformative impact on American Jewish life.

As the new year approaches, I want to say how proud I am to be not just a Jew but a professional whose career advances the Jewish mission and Jewish particularism. I am grateful for my many colleagues in the field, at foundations, federations and non-profits, who share this passion. May the new year bring us good health, family joy, productivity, progress, satisfaction and increased moral and financial support from the American Jewish community. Shana Tova!

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Print Friendly
Pin It
Send to Kindle


  1. says

    Thanks Yossi for your kind words.

    eJewish Philanthropy is what it is today thanks to the generous support of our many contributors and of our reader community. Working collectively eJP has been able to achieve its core goal, “to create dialogue and advance the conversation.”

    We wish all l’shanah tovah techatemu ve tikatevu, a good and sweet year. May we all, personally and professionally, go from strength to strength.

  2. says

    Yossi, As one who once was a professional in and with the Jewish world but who is now mostly outside [except for occasional speaking and volunteer leadership roles], I have a somewhat different take on some of this:

    1. Re Particularist institutions. It is important to note that what is a particularist instiution in one generation and in one place may be a publicly supported one at another time or in another place. Hospitals, Family Services, Vocational Services were all, at one time, particularist but now are not. And in many places education is publicly supported, even when it includes matters of particularist interest. Even in America, there are charter schools with particularist focus. And in numerous countries, even religious institutions receive public support. So this is a moving target for funders and worth discussing as we look to supporting “Jewish” interests.
    2. Some institutions are not particularist but serve particularist interest in very effective ways. For example, at a university, one can take Jewish studies, be kosher, be shomer shabbat, etc – or not. A case can be made that cultivating and supporting this environment and context is as valuable for Jewish identity in an open and pluralist society as some more partiulcarist-defined ones.
    3. I don’t disagree with the Hillel dictum. But it is also important to remember that many young, and not so young, folks today don’t define their Jewish identity through institutions. While the validity of this too can be argued, it seems to me that the case must be made from a different starting point: what can be or is compelling about the Jewish side of ones identity, and what needs to be supported to enable that to be fulfilled. It may be new visions of community, or different relationships with institutions. When manifestations of Jewish identity are defined as support for Jewish institutions, it doesn’t resonate with lots of people.

    Yossi, I know the challenge of addressing complex issues in these snippets of ideas, and I know your own thinking includes these challenges. Nevertheless, I do think it is important if one is to address re-balancing the giving priorities of those in open societies.

  3. Yossi Prager says

    Thanks, Rick, for the thoughtful comment!

    I agree with your focus on the complexity of the issue on a practical level, though we might quibble on some details (e.g. I don’t believe that charter schools can be particularistic even if they teach Hebrew). Institutions can have programs that are universal or particular, and things change over time. In many cases, the “thing” to be funded might be a program, rather than an institution.

    It is also probably true that most young Jews do not resonate with the word “institution.” Even older funders need to be inspired by outcomes that are meaningful to them, rather than by the communitarian impulse that drove Jews in the last generation. As you said, all of this must be addressed in any practical effort to persuade donors to rebalance their priorities.

  4. Gary Aidekman says

    Wish I had more time to comment. Kol hakavod to Mr. Prager. Mr. Marker’s points are well taken.

    With respect to what “resonates”…do we accept our North American Jewish environment as it is or do we try to restore a better balance toward the particular and Jewish mutual responsibility. I chose the latter and here is my (now 3 year old) case for it… … maybe with the proper push it can resonate as well.

  5. Yossi Prager says

    Thanks for your comment, Gary, and for the link to your terrific earlier article. I see that I wasn’t the first to use Hillel in this context.

  6. says

    Yes, Rabbi Prager is preaching to the crowd; but, it is wonderful that we have a resource for our family of professionals. “ejewishphilanthropy” is a wonderful, helpful, and always interesting resource. Thank you for creating this forum.

  7. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    Yossi wrote above, “For this reason, even as there are many universal causes that advance the Jewish mission, Jewish education (encompassing day schools, camps, synagogues, youth groups, Israel trips and more) is the only way to perpetuate the Jewish mission.”

    Just what is the “Jewish mission” articulated in a clear, crisp, concise, compelling, “fit on the back of a tee shirt” a la Peter Drucker z’l manner? My bet is that while it may resonate with the “choir (of ‘preaching to the choir’ fame)” of professional Jews (Jewish clergy, educators, movement staff, etal) in here, it would fall on the already deaf ears of the vast majority of non- Orthodox North American Jews for whom this mission is likely to be irrelevant and meaningless. I really hope to be proved wrong.

    L’shana tova u’m’tuqa to all of us as well as the strength, courage, wisdom, grace and support to face and deal with what isn’t.


  8. Yossi Prager says

    Thank you, Jordan, for taking the time to respond. My point was that the Jewish mission is broad enough to encompass causes that the non-choir can embrace: anything that makes the world a better place from the perspective of the Torah. I then tried to explain why giving by Jews should nonetheless prioritize the needs of Jews and Jewish education and programming — Family First but also because only Jews will support Jewish education and programming. The case for prioritization is the tougher sell, but (I think) is logically compelling for anyone who believes that Jews continue to have something to contribute as Jews and not just as people of Jewish descent.

    I happily reciprocate your warm wishes for the new year. We need all the blessings you mention as well as good health and maybe a sense of humor!

  9. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Yossi,

    You replied: “The case for prioritization (charitable support for Jewish education and programming) is the tougher sell, but (I think) is logically compelling for anyone who believes that Jews continue to have something to contribute as Jews and not just as people of Jewish descent.”

    Sadly you’ve made my point. The “choir” may believe this. But because most North American non Orthodox Jews are indeed “people of Jewish descent;” are Jewish like a Reuben Sandwich is Jewish; or as Rabbi Daniel Friedman put it, “Jews Without Judaism” in his book by the same name, they don’t believe that Jews “have something to contribute as Jews.” So, not only is the sale “a tougher sell,” it’s doomed to failure as irrelevant and meaningless to this the fastest growing Jewish demographic in North America.

    Of course this begs the question, what is that “something to contribute as Jews” to which you refer? This is basically the same question (which remains unanswered) I asked above: “Just what is the ‘Jewish mission’ articulated in a clear, crisp, concise, compelling, ‘fit on the back of a tee shirt’ a la
    Peter Drucker, z’l, manner?”

    In your Rosh Hashana wishes you added “and maybe a sense of humor.”

    I’ll own that about subjects like these I’m humorless, for alarm followed by sadness is all I can muster in the face of the facts on the ground re a failing (by all that is measurable) North American non Orthodox Judaism and its institutions and organizations.

    Maybe I’ll be inspired to believe otherwise by the High Holiday sermons I’ll be hearing over the coming days. Perhaps my last sentence qualifies me
    as having a sense of humor after all. Not!!!

    L’shana Tova U’mtuqa