It is that time of year again, the time of counting. I don’t mean just the counting of the Omer, which we do, daily in our synagogues and temples; I mean the counting of dollars and cents raised by our communities as part of our various Jewish community fundraising campaigns. It is the time when we make our final estimates and declare our final projections; the time when we begin to make decisions about where the dollars we raise will go, and how they will be spent.
And this year, more so than any in recent memory, there are fewer dollars and there are harder decisions.
Our communities at home in the United States are all suffering from the unprecedented economic hardships – the ledger of financial resources is short and the list of people in need is long. Our day schools are suffering attrition at rates that are alarming and emergency assistance requests are increasing at a pace that is dismaying. With all this in mind, there is an increasing sense across American Jewish communities that we need to make sure that before we send too many Jewish dollars overseas to Israel, to the JDC, to the Jewish Agency for Israel, that we must take care of our needs here at home first, at the expense of our overseas allocations. Not without hand wringing and hearts breaking, we argue and posture that ‘just this year’ we can reduce our overseas allocations to keep more money in our communities.
But after seven years of serving as a volunteer in local Federation planning and allocations decisions, and notwithstanding my involvement in many local Jewish organizations, I am convinced more than ever of the following: in this time of economic crisis, we should not and cannot disproportionately sacrifice our overseas allocations for our local needs.
There are four reasons why we must honor our commitment to Jews across the world, most substantially in Israel and the Former Soviet Union: History, Facts, Faces, and Faith.
History is significant threefold – the history of combined philanthropy, the recent history of our local communities, and the history our children and grandchildren will learn. As we sit around our board rooms in our Federations and Jewish Welfare Boards, we cannot and should not forget that much of the history of combined philanthropy was to efficiently and powerfully address the needs of Jews around the would. That is our history, and that remains our mission. Certainly recent economic history challenges perception of our past, we more viscerally remember our much more recent local history of retraction and need. In the midst of this recent history, we cannot help but momentarily forget how we got here when we are overwhelmed of the question of where to go in the future.
But we should not forget we are making history too – how we respond to this crisis will be recorded for our children and grandchildren to know. And they should know this – even when we suffered at home, we never forgot our obligations abroad. Our history should show, it must show, that in time of our greatest need, we still honored our past – we remembered the places of our history and the needs of Jews that still remain in those places.
The facts and faces of overseas needs are critical factors to remember in our allocations decisions and oftentimes are the most easily forgotten. Our local needs confront us every day, we feel their impact, and we know the people who suffer the loss. We are also inundated with data and information that build the case for keeping dollars at home in our own communities. We are overwhelmingly persuaded by the facts and faces that surround us when we are making our decisions – we know what we will feel when we walk out of our boardrooms, and even more so, we know what we will hear.
That is exactly why we must not sacrifice our commitment to helping Jews overseas. The facts are no less compelling – in these economic times the need is even greater in Israel and FSU. The pain is even higher. The danger of losing Jews is even greater, and the other networks of support are even weaker. We know, factually, that the need exists. Butt we don’t see there faces everyday – we don’t know their names. When we walk out of our boardrooms, we won’t hear from them; they won’t call to complain.
They will be the silent cuts – and the faces we do not see. And while our local community needs will be more apparent to us over the coming year, and motivate us to dig into our pockets even deep in the coming year, the needs of our brothers and sisters in Israel, FSU and elsewhere will still be far removed from us. We can’t forget them now, because we may not remember them later.
Lastly, our overseas allocation is a matter of our faith. Not just our faith in one another, but our faith in G-d as well. As a Jewish people we are in a great partnership – not just in communities and not just with our “overseas partners,” but we are partners with G-d in acts of creation, of sustenance, and of compassion for G-d’s people. That partnership not only includes those partners we see day-to-day and live in our towns and neighborhoods. We have partners all over the world that have joined with us in G-d’s acts of creation throughout history. We cannot choose to recognize that partnership in part; we must recognize it in whole. And this partnership, this holy partnership requires us to make holy decisions – decisions that require sacrifice of ourselves.
So there it is – history, facts, faces, and faith. The four legs of the table on which we must do our counting; the four factors we must consider when doing our deciding how we will protect and preserve our support of our fellow Jews overseas. It is my case for preserving our overseas allocations this year, and it is my plea. But my questions remain:
In this time of counting – how will we count? And who?
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, a member of the Board of Directors of Joshua Venture (relaunching in Spring, 2009), a Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation. Seth is an occassional contibutor to eJewish Philanthropy; he can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.