Paying for Peoplehood
by Dr. Misha Galperin
By now, the terminology of peoplehood has been dissected and analyzed, defined, refined and thoroughly debated. No one argues about its centrality to the future of Jewish communal organizations, indeed the future of Jewish life. In a time of economic challenge, when the bonds of peoplehood are in decline in our emerging population of young professionals, the central question is not what is peoplehood or why should you care but how we can strengthen our commitment to each other collectively while paying for the privilege?
As I have said elsewhere, peoplehood is not a sexy tagline for Jewish-fundraisers but this is largely about semantics. People for years were drawn to the tagline “We are all one” because it spoke to the heart of a deeply held Jewish aspiration. Despite our many differences and segmentation, we are profoundly proud of our legacy. Being one people represented the emotional barometer of where we wanted to be in our minds and hearts.
We don’t need that less now. We need it more. We have spent the better part of the last decades stressing rights rather than responsibilities. We took care of tens of thousands of Soviet immigrants and flew planeloads of Ethiopian Jews out of harm’s way to Israel. Annually, we send tens of thousands of college students to Israel for free as if it were their right to go. We did all this out of a sense of responsibility, but it has not easily translated into a pay-it-forward sort of Jewish tax. We did this for you. What will you do for others? Instead, we may have enabled a culture of entitlement among Jews that has translated instead to a what-are-you-going-to-do-for-me-next?
And our tzedaka has been framed in the same way. What do I want to give to? What will make me feel good? I hear people speak this way about their philanthropy all of the time. One side of me says that we should encourage whatever helps motivate philanthropists and aspiring philanthropists to give. Outcomes matter. Ambitions, less so.
Part of the problem is that we want philanthropists to fund a peoplehood agenda when many of them do not feel the bonds of peoplehood themselves. We have not found enough powerful ways to engage the very people who could make this happen. Both the Nadav and the Taub Foundation have taken significant steps in this arena but they cannot walk alone.
In a similar vein, we ask people to fund the collective when we are not taking care of the particulars that they deeply care about. What do I mean? Let’s take two examples. A potential donor couple to a Federation has two intermarried children and does not feel that their Federation is doing enough outreach to interfaith families. They give not only in order to get but they still want to feel that their gift is making a difference in the lives of people who matter to them. They want to fund a collective that they are part of and they feel on the margins on the community.
On the other side of the spectrum, we find an Orthodox family who gives virtually no gift to their Federation because they are mired down in day school tuition payment and they feel that Federations have done very little to make this huge problem a communal priority. They want to fund a collective that they are part of and they feel on the margins of the community.
Strangely enough, both of these families are right and right for the same reason.
Maybe we have gone about this all wrong and that we are paying an enormous price now for encouraging so much personal, customized boutique giving. People give to what they want. Sometimes the Jewish community is the flavor of the month. More often it is not. But no one will take care of us if we don’t take care of ourselves. It’s a cliché, but as with most clichés, it’s true. And yet we do not really know what a collective Jewish identity is today. And therein our problem lies. It is impossible to fundraise when you don’t know what you’re selling.
In the Bible we had a half-shekel tax. In the medieval and modern periods, we had gabbai tzedaka, community collectors who determined the Jewish tax on each individual family. It was not a matter of social expectation or status or volition. It was an obligation. We used to rely on the collective language of obligation and kindness, the fear of anti-Semitism, and the belief that we were all family. And there was no competition to speak of. We also trusted our communal leaders to make the right decisions about priorities.
In this framework, tzedaka was the way that you understood, in the most utilitarian of ways: “I scratch your back. You scratch mine.” You are an anchor contributor to the community’s stability and when you are vulnerable the community will be here for you.
Today we cultivate gifts. We thank people profusely. We beg when we have to. But we shouldn’t have to do any of these things. Ideally, we should send people a Jewish IRS form that says: this is what you owe this year based on what you earned and what we as a collective need. Here is your share. Paying it entitles you to its benefits in your time of need. It’s a Jewish insurance policy, nothing more, nothing less.
We are far away from that now because we, unwittingly perhaps, disconnected philanthropy from tzedaka and tzedka from peoplehood. Our job now is to piece it back together and make a more compelling case. Of course, it’s harder than ever now to “bring back that lovin’ feeling.” At the end of the day, it may not be about love anyway.
It may be a simple case of economics. You don’t expect that your county or municipality is going to pick up your garbage, plow your streets in the snow and make sure your electric grid is up to par for nothing. You pay taxes and as a result, you expect something for it: a competent police force, an active sanitation crew, firefighter and ambulance crews you can depend on. That’s the deal you have because you pay taxes. It’s your covenant with your neighborhood. When you get sub-standard services you expect more. You’re paying for it.
In the Jewish community, we expect that milestone events will be ushered in by professionals and that crises in Israel will be addressed. Seniors and youth will have spaces and services that are relevant, compassionate and meaningful. We will be a safety net for everyone. The cost: nothing. Someone else will foot the bill.
As a taxpayer, you expect more. As a Jew you should expect less. Why? Because we are not paying for peoplehood. And we can’t afford not to anymore.
Since we can’t send tax Jewish collectors door-to-door, we are stuck with the question of how to get people to take on responsibility for our collective entity. How do you convince the potential philanthropists that this is a worthwhile investment or a fair tax? Often, we can’t even motivate donors with a strong sense of communal values to do the right thing.
Maybe we need to take a lesson from university fund-raising. Good universities are the most successful at getting contributions from their alumni. Graduates feel grateful, are asked by their peers or teachers to give back and are paving the way for their children to get the same benefits. And you can get your name on a building, a program, chair or a professorship. What would be the equivalent for the Jewish community these days since we don’t have ivy-league federations?
I believe we need a tzedaka/peoplehood curriculum developed for all sorts of groups and age cohorts. The curriculum can’t be simply didactic; it has to be both practical and experiential. We need to teach the value of money and what it is really worth in communal terms. It needs to be part of every day-school, Hebrew school, camp, and Israel Experience. We need to make it a standard feature of board orientations for synagogues, JCCs and other communal organizations. We cannot assume that people will understand how communities are formed and strengthened through osmosis. We need to do a better job articulating it.
Being part of the community must mean participation in community. When we create and shape communities through Jewish experiences, we need to make sure that part of what it means to be a member is not only to benefit from the comfort of community but to take an active role in supporting it. We need a values curriculum that creates a shared lexicon of responsibility. And we don’t have it yet.
Dr. Misha Galperin is the President of the Jewish Agency for Israel International Development.