My Complicated Relationship with Phil

One 20-something explains the ups and downs of her personal connection to Jewish philanthropy.

by Ariella Lis

There is this acquaintance in my life named Philanthropy. Let’s call him “Phil” for short.

People really like to talk to me about Phil. Lots of important Jews are worried that “my generation” will not give to Jewish causes. But, I ease their anxiety. I’m living proof that Jews in their twenties care a great deal about Jewish giving. Technically, I’m a grad student, but because of Phil, my calendar says very un-academic things like “end of grant cycle” and “conference call” and “funders meeting.” These things sound important, but are very inconvenient when they occur over finals and midterms. Because of Phil, I get a lot of emails, I get invited to sit on boards, and I go to a lot of conferences. Sometimes, I suspect that Phil implanted a chip in my brain with a database of Jewish organizations and Jewish causes. This is sometimes helpful, but also annoying.

Sometimes, people seem extra nice or oddly attentive because they know I am involved with Phil. It makes me very uncomfortable when people praise me for caring about Jewish philanthropy. I inherited resources and a legacy of giving from my parents, who are very active in the Jewish community and give to many Jewish and non-Jewish causes. I am blessed that I was born into a philanthropic family and I am proud of my parents and their choices. I’ve noticed that a lot of Jewish institutions create giving hierarchies. People who give modest contributions are called “members” or “supporters.” But, the more you give, the snazzier the title gets. Adding a certain amount takes you from member, to emerging leader, to leader, to board member, to honorary chairperson, and so on. Perhaps I am reading a bit too much into this structure. Clearly the titles and process are different for each organization. I believe that donors should have a method of participating in the organizations in which they contribute. But, does a sizeable donation make you a leader? I’m not sure. Do I feel like a leader when I make a contribution? Not really. I’m only 23. I still have a lot to learn about Jewish philanthropy. Sometimes I need a break from Phil. I’ll probably grow out of one cause and grow into another. At some point, I’ll probably say the wrong thing. I’ll probably pretend I’m enjoying myself. I’ll probably complain. But isn’t this what all Jewish philanthropists do?

I’ve also seen people use Phil as an excuse. Giving a generous donation to a Jewish cause does not give you license to act like a jerk. Having money and giving money does not give you the right to jump to the front of the line, to mistreat or disrespect other people, or to be ignorant or apathetic. Phil has taught me many things, has introduced me to amazing people, and has taken me to meaningful places and events. Phil puts on a really great show.

But, Phil is not perfect. I have many friends who work for Phil’s causes, and some are not treated very well. Many Jewish professionals work very hard for very little money. Phil is very anxious about the Jewish world. Phil likes to make sweeping generalizations about what “my generation” needs. Sometimes, I feel like Phil’s first priority is introducing Jewish boys to Jewish girls so they can have Jewish babies. I tell Phil to stop staring at my ovaries. I remind Phil that young Jewish adults make great activists. Labor rights, civil rights, women’s rights, Soviet Jewry, the election of President Obama, the State of Israel were all championed by phenomenal, young Jewish leaders. I agree that Jews have made the world a better place. So maybe Jewish philanthropists should be more interested in supporting the Jewish person I am now, instead of worrying about the type of Jewish mother I may be. Phil needs to chill out. It will be okay.

As if implanting a microchip in my brain isn’t creepy enough, some of my friends wonder if I have drunk too much of Phil’s kosher Kool-Aid and now I am blind. I am seeing the world through Phil’s eyes instead of my own. I don’t like Kool-Aid, kosher or otherwise. But, I care deeply about Jewish causes. This is not because I participated in a successful Jewish identity building program, funded by a leading Jewish philanthropist. I care about Jewish causes because my parents raised me in a home where Judaism was fun, informal, and meaningful. They established that Jewish causes were not something I should care about, but something that is worth caring about. I enjoy advocating for causes I care about, having my voice listened to, and participating in relevant conversations about Jewish life. Being a young Jewish philanthropist makes things complicated, but at the end of the day, I like having Phil in my life.

Ariella Lis is a graduate student at Brandeis University, where she is researching technology, virtual communication, and the formation of Jewish ideas. She was raised in Detroit, Michigan. Ariella is involved with her family’s private foundation, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metro Detroit, and the Slingshot Fund.

This article originally appeared in 614: HBI eZine – an online magazine published by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to spark conversation among young Jewish women about hot topics relevant to their lives. Reprinted with permission.