Jewish Philanthropy: Us, Them, – or All of Us?

[eJP note: we recently launched a crowd-sourced conversation, What is Jewish Philanthropy?. Kicking off the discussion, here is what Richard Marker has to say:]

Us, them, – or all of us?

I recently had an extended “twitter” exchange on the topic of where Jews should give their charitable dollars. Of course, 140 characters, no matter how abbreviated the words or clever the post is no replacement for a real in-depth discussion, but it did uncover a disagreement about “first claims” on our philanthropic dollars. And implicitly it addressed the question “what is Jewish philanthropy?”

My partner in the conversation was someone I have known for a long time – someone whom I respect deeply, whom I like personally, and whose continuing commitment to his work and the Jewish community knows no bounds. In the days when I worked in the Jewish community, he was a cherished and responsible colleague albeit in a different organization. So this exchange was characterized by mutual respect and courtesy – attributes one sadly doesn’t always see these days.

What was at stake: my counterpart, [henceforth “L”], argued that support for universal or secular causes is at the expense of support for Jewish ones. Universalism, in his view, is implicitly the enemy of the particular, or more specifically, if one supports secular causes, one would probably forsake Jewish ones. Looking at trends in charitable giving, he notes, accurately, that many Jews have been giving greater percentages of their philanthropic dollars to non-specifically Jewish causes than would have been the case a generation or two ago. As L sees it, such priorities reflect a reduction, or worse, a rejection of responsibility to sustain Jewish institutions, leaving them vulnerable. And ultimately, then, leaving the Jewish community vulnerable.

L’s arguments are not new and not without some logic. However, my view is that they are ideologically and pragmatically incorrect:

Ideological – A

As some readers know, I have in the past been a professor of theology and more recently served leadership roles in the international interreligious realm. I have come to understand that one criterion for authenticity in a religion, any religion, is the dialectic tension between the universal and the particular. Any tradition which is only focused on itself is nothing more than a cult; any which focuses exclusively on the universal is really a philosophy. Different traditions within every religion have differing emphases, but the affirmation of both is integral and essential. In the Jewish Tradition, halachah demands, requires, that one supports needs beyond the Jewish community, although to be sure there is a hierarchy of how one decides how much. Thus, if one is committed to supporting one’s own religious tradition it is incumbent, mandatory, to support at least some causes which benefit the world beyond those boundaries.

Ideological – B

Many who previously might have felt inclined to support the interests of “their own” did so on the basis that, “if we don’t, no one will”. That argument still applies, but in a very much more limited way than in the past. In times of social security, hospitals which serve everyone, universities which offer majors in Jewish studies, or provide facilities for traditionally observant students, or of cultural institutions whose boards are no longer “restricted” or careers open to all, there are fewer needs which are only served by Jewish institutions. To be sure, in the United States, synagogues, youth groups, day schools, etc. are exclusively supported by funds raised by the Jewish community. But any argument that only Jews support Jews is no longer true. These are the benefits of an open society, and thus there is value in supporting secular universities, and cultural institutions, and to advocate for more responsive public policies for health care and hunger and poverty, Philanthropic support of secular organizations is not only not a rejection of Jewish interests but are an affirmation of the healthy benefits of an open society.

Pragmatic – A

There are some causes, such as the environment, which, if not addressed universally make no sense. The destruction of the Ozone layer, the decimation of the forests, the impending world food shortages do not honor belief systems or national borders. In these matters, the only way to address them is to recognize that universal interest, in the long run, is self-interest. For very practical reasons, it may make sense to encourage Jewish support through Jewish organizational efforts, but not because there are particularist interests which supersede universal ones. Moreover, these efforts are meaningless if they are not aligned with other similarly committed advocates outside our own community.

Pragmatic – B

L did not say, but others have, that too much “Jewish money is going to non-Jewish causes.” However, money made by Jews is not Jewish money; the community and its institutions have no inherent claim on those earnings simply because the earner happens to be Jewish. And in fact, many diaspora Jews feel fully secure in their Jewishness without the need to affiliate with Jewish institutions. Many observe holidays, Shabbat, and kashrut, without either the need or the sense of obligation to support institutions. Much has been written about this trend. Individuals may provide substantial financial support, albeit not necessarily “philanthropic” support, to live a Jewish life without supporting Jewish institutions. En passant, a higher percentage of philanthropic dollars may go to secular causes even if one’s personal Jewish commitment is not necessarily reduced.

In the end, Jewish philanthropy in this era is to be defined by the intention of the funder more than by the nature of the recipient. After all, philanthropy is not the determination of values, but a reflection of them. Only by cultivating Jewish identity will support for Jewish life flourish – often hand in hand with support for universal ones as well. But it is likely, in this century of radical realignment, that even when that support flourishes, it often bypasses the institutions which defined 20th Century Jewish life. And for many, that is the most unsettling challenge of all.

eJewish Philanthropy encourages our readers to join the conversation.

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning and blogs at Wise Philanthropy.

image: You Me Us Them,