New Book on Jewish Ethics Unlocks Hidden Insight on Disability & Philanthropy

By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

I’m not a rabbi, nor am I a formal book reviewer. But I found “The Sacred Exchange: Creating A Jewish Money Ethic,” edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore, to be a thought provoking “must read” for Jewish philanthropists and fundraisers alike.

I originally bought the book because Rabbi Daniel (“Danny”) Allen wrote the chapter “Tzedakah and Aliyah: How American Jews Helped Build Israel,” about his lifelong passion – enabling Jews to build and strengthen Israel and the Jewish people.

The book has a series of essays that are written by rabbis and other experts. As someone who has both given and raised funds in the Jewish community for decades, I found numerous insightful pieces that will inspire and inform my work. Many chapters of the book spoke strongly to my work as a disability activist in the Jewish community and beyond, and I would like to humbly share my reactions on Rabbi Allen’s chapter with you. I encourage other readers of eJewishPhilanthropy to read this book and share the insights that I know that it will elicit.

Danny was my Hillel Rabbi at my Emory University. That role grew into a decades-long mentorship and friendship. He wrote his chapter as he was battling ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. He knew his time was short, and clearly prioritized this chapter as a way to leave a final gift to us all. He succeeded spectacularly.

Interestingly, while Danny played major roles in many epic chapters of Israel and the Jewish community’s history (often behind the scenes), his chapter did not even mention his own role in it. Instead he outlined various institutions, structures and key decisions made by large groups of Jews to strengthen the Jewish people. He collected a history of whom and what propelled our people forward. Functioning as a supremely informative article on the history of Jewish organizations, it also read like a like a love letter to the Jewish collective.

The last time I saw Danny in person was when he gave a powerful eulogy for Jewish hero Shoshana Cardin. She, too, was someone who was deeply committed to the strength, organization and collective impact of Jewish institutions. At her funeral Danny spoke of not only Shoshana’s historic contributions to the Jewish people, but also of the varied and valuable Jewish institutions she loved and led. It clearly took great effort for Danny, who at that time needed to use a power wheelchair, to make the trip from his home in New Jersey to Baltimore to speak at the funeral. That effort was worth it for him to be there for Shoshana’s legacy and to protect and project the values of Jewish communal institutions. He told me at the time that he was working on this chapter.

Danny was concerned with some of the politics around Jewish Federations, agencies and other vehicles for helping the Jewish community. He and I discussed how, while at times these organizations seemed like dinosaurs, it was still important to repair and improve them. Even as we celebrated the new creative approaches of young and/or particularly wealthy Jews, we worried that these efforts to “make their own Shabbos” came at the expense of organizations focused on serving the community overall.

Danny’s chapter ends with “Our hopes for American Jewish philanthropy in the twenty-first century are the following: (1) philanthropic support for Israel will continue without and despite political differences; (2) there will be a reconfiguration of legacy within Jewish organizations in order to serve a more disparate American Jewish population; (3) mega-donors and foundations will include the general Jewish community in their decision-making process; and (4) the emergence of a strong Jewish philanthropic collective will be based on Israel and American Jewish needs, not partisan or parochial perspectives.”

So, what did I take away from Danny’s chapter and how will it impact my own work as a Jewish activist focused on the 1-in-5 people with a disability?

On one hand, Danny valued the collective. On the other hand, in life and in his essay, which came out after his death, he also highly prioritized individual responsibility. Indeed, in his section he reminds us, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

Indeed, among his final actions, even as Danny was becoming extremely disabled physically, he still felt that he needed to do his part. We must learn from his example, because many people look at Jews with disabilities and say “we must do something for THEM” and not “what can this person with a disability for US – the collective.” The reverse is also true, each of us who has a disability must say “Hineni” (here I am) and find a way to do our part.

Rabbi Danny Allen spent most of his life as an ally for people with disabilities. He ended his tenure on earth as a disability leader and living role model. He showed that people with significant disabilities still have something important to give – are still obligated to give it – and can succeed spectacularly.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is co-founder of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund and of RespectAbility, a nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities.