Giving Jewish or Jewish Giving

by Dr. Howard Goldenberg

When I was nine, my family moved to Melbourne from the country town of Leeton in the Riverina, so we children could go to Mount Scopus. One of the annual events at Scopus at that time was the fundraising campaign for Youth Aliyah. I think I recall the name of the appeal as Jewish Child’s Day. All the Scopus kids were sent out to doorknock for donations. I lived in Oakleigh; everyone else lived in Caulfield or Elwood or Kew.

I knocked on gentile doors, while the rest of the school knocked on doors with mezuzoth.

The appeal period fell in winter. I’d walk up and down the streets of Oakleigh, darkness would fall, and people would respond in a variety of ways – invariably with puzzlement, then with a coin or a refusal. One phrase struck me as unexpected and gratuitous: it seemed to me to miss the point entirely: a person – usually a woman – would say: “Not today, thank you. I give at the church.”

I’d walk on, uncoined and confused. ‘If you give at the church, you’re a good person, charitable, I get you. How come you don’t get me?’

I had missed their point, which was: I am Christian; I give Christian. And every so often, a person who gave at the church would give also to Youth Aliyah or Jewish Child’s Day, no doubt puzzled, possibly embarrassed, or simply compassionate towards this weedy kid come to their door in the cold and dark.

Later, as an adult, I recognized parallel attitudes among Jewish people. For a time I suspected that Jewish people’s differing approaches to the question of giving worked as geographic or demographic indicators: a Jew who declared: “I give solely to Jewish charities … why should I give to the gentile causes? They aren’t going to donate to ours. We need to look after our own…” was likely to come from Eastern Europe. The donor to both Jewish and Gentile causes was likely to come from a Western European background, or from an English speaking country.

After a while, I saw that this generalization didn’t hold, but as an idea, it does give rise to some fruitful reflection.

The first is that among Jewish people, I have rarely found anyone blankly uncharitable. Jews give as if by reflex. Giving is an expression of Jewishness. It goes back to Moses, it goes back to Abraham. (It does a dogleg in the case of Jacob, who gives wholeheartedly to his uncle-employer Laban, until uncle takes advantage of him. Then the giving stops.)

To come back to my east-west dichotomy: if we live in a country with the rule of law, equality before the law, no recent or current anti-Semitic outrages, we might well feel included, and as a result, inclusive.

If, on the other hand, our family experience is one of exclusion and hostility, our attitude might naturally be less open.

In that case, we feel and act like Jacob after being cheated the honeymoon was a fraud.

But how to account for German Jews? These people, who had lived under the rule of law, saw their social faith comprehensively overthown. Yet many of them are leaders in Jewish initiatives for non-Jewish giving.

I’m thinking here particularly of Bnai Brith, and of the Liberal Shule’s Social Action Group.

Now, just to take these unreliable generalizations a little further, we might wonder whether it is assimilation that leads a Jew to give to non-Jews.

We all know the term: assimilation. But if we examine it, we see that assimilation is the process of becoming similar. This is a helpful realization. It is the discovery, or the rediscovery, that the giver and the givee are similar. We recognize in the other a person … one like ourselves. In religious terms, this is the discovery of the tzelem Elokim, the single image of the Divine in all humans. To quote from Malachi: “Have we not all one Father? Hath not G-d created us?”

The English poet and priest John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare wrote echoing lines:

“Therefore, do not send to know for whom the bell tolls.

It tolls for thee.”

I have found it instructive to consider the Jewish Laws of Charity as well as the laws of related charitable acts, such as hospitality – acts of altruism or kindness.

While many charitable Jews are secular and their giving is not consciously prompted by Halacha, I suspect that the religion is normative across our people broadly. In other words, a person who gives by impulse or by instinct or by habit, quite without a sense of mitzvah, might yet be prompted by unrecognized norms – ancient religious values – of Jewishness.

The Torah gives us early guidelines, both in the example set by Abraham, who rescues gentiles taken captive in war; and who rushes to welcome and tend to the three strangers who come to his door; and in the case of his problematic nephew, Lot, who takes the same visitors into his home at the risk of his life. (This reminds me of the astonishing parallel behaviour of so many Dutch people during WWII. The statistics are remarkable: ordinary Dutch people in their thousands took in Jewish strangers at the risk of their lives and the lives of their children. [Now many Dutch gentiles are in fact of Spanish-Jewish descent, and hence jewish-ish themselves … But this historic wild card does not explain away or reduce the amazing altruism of those righteous Dutch gentiles. For myself, I cannot imagine showing such courage or kindness.]

Dr Howard Goldenberg has spent close to two decades working as a relief doctor in remote Aboriginal Communities in Outback Australia.

Excerpted from an address to the Australian Jewish Funders annual conference. Copyright Howard Goldenberg; reprinted with permission.