In Relation to the Collective

by Charlene Seidle

Larry Moses’ thoughtful essay expounds on the juxtaposition between the traditional nature of obligatory tzedakah – a “Jewish tax” – and the contemporary focus on philanthropy as a tool for individual impact.

But can we equate centralized decision making by a privileged few, the way it is currently practiced, with democratic and consensus-driven decision making? In more cases than not, today, decisions about responding to community needs are made by a few individuals, sometimes committee appointees, who lack the expertise to make truly informed judgments on how best to allocate precious dollars. How is this process different from the one Larry Moses describes, where individual philanthropists set their own priorities?

Perhaps the age of individualism, referred to in Moses’ essay, presents us with the opportunity to recreate a communal model for giving in ways that appropriately pull together the broad spectrum of community.

Technology is our friend in this effort. Through media such as wikis, online voting, and social networking, we are able to collect community data and varying opinions, and then quickly and efficiently gauge interest and need. While nothing substitutes for a trip to Israel, video helps to bridge the distance.

And yet, we can rely too heavily on technology. In San Diego, we’ve just completed a series of conversations with high school students and community members in their 20s and 30s about how we can best support and inspire their philanthropy. Many expressed passionately a desire for meaningful and substantive conversation. Though they are wired into the Internet, they complained that Facebook has pushed the limit of superficial connection and Twitter is a breeding ground for unevolved ideas.

Our foundation serves more than 700 donor-advised funds and family foundations – each with individual interests. All of our funders value the research we provide as well as the connections to other family foundations. We have a critical opportunity to help build their network so it serves both individual passions and established community priorities; we help make the obvious and not-so-obvious connections among funders, organizations, and sectors. The ideal system is one where the individual is informed but not controlled by the collective – where he or she is moved by individual interests to participate in a larger communal endeavor. Jewish traditions and values continue to offer many resources. Perhaps it’s time to consider developing some fresh language to demonstrate how ancient ideas are actually quite robust and cutting-edge. Tikkun olam, the idea of repairing the world, may just be overused. What about ha’atzmah (empowerment) or tikvah (hope)? The Ohio-based Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation (primary funders of the Sh’ma Institute) reimagines the ancient concept of moshiach (the Messiah) as a sense of the possibility and, ultimately, the perfectibility of the world. Moses cites service in his article, and we would do well to help our constituencies think seriously about how they give to others without immediate personal gain. This is a powerful principle of Judaism and a tool for both self-actualization and community-enhancements.

Looking forward, there is much reason for optimism. On the whole, the millennial generation is more likely than any other to cite a desire to make the world a better place as its primary philanthropic motivator. We could not be in a better position to help this generation achieve its goals – for the benefit of both the individual giver and those in need.

Charlene Seidle is senior vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, where she works with families to match their charitable interests with communal needs. She also oversees consultation with the Leichtag Family Foundation, a private foundation in San Diego with ties to the federation.

Reprinted with permission from the October 2011 issue of the journal Sh’ma, as part of a larger conversation about philanthropy and tzedakah.