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.