Philanthropists Examine Jewish Giving in Tough Economy

by Dovid Zaklikowski

Philanthropists from across the globe examined the nature of Jewish charity, telling an audience of communal lay leaders gathered in New York that far from providing an excuse to diminish philanthropic endeavors, the Great Recession necessitates even greater levels of giving.

Speaking at the Lay Leadership conference run by the 27th annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, Argentine businessman Eduardo Elsztain joined three other panelists in offering his own rationale behind charitable giving.

Elsztain, chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress, declared that giving offered him “tremendous [spiritual] protection.”

Unlike partners in business, explained Elsztain, he views directors of Jewish charities and their staff as his true partners. As a result of his contributions, he added, he derived blessings in his life that could only have come from the Almighty.

Offering another way to look at charity, Tecnisa chairman Meyer Nigri of S. Paulo, Brazil, said that whatever the spiritual “return,” the “most important thing is to give.”

“When I give charity, I do it because I think it is important,” announced Nigri at the roundtable discussion at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge Sunday afternoon. “I don’t see a relation between donating and expecting something in return.”

During the discussion, philanthropist and panelist George Rohr emphasized that charity is incumbent on all, no matter the difficulty.

“I give,” he stated, because “that is what the Torah tells us to do.”

“We must recognize that these resources are not ours,” advised Rohr. Divine blessings enabled certain people to have material wealth only so that they support the poor and bring goodness into the world. “This recognition informs a whole new perspective on giving,” he said.

Brazilian businessman Meyer Nigri said that whatever the spiritual “return,” the “most important thing is to give.”

A Tall Order

That’s still a tall order in the current economic environment, a point shared by conference attendees and highlighted by its agenda.

Rohr referenced a conversation with his father and philanthropic role model, Sami Rohr.

“It is not a kuntz [an achievement] to give when things are good,” the elder Rohr explained. “The trick is to give when things are not so good.”

“G-d is challenging us,” echoed Jeffrey Cohen, the Potomac, Md.-based chairman of Beco Management, “He wants to know what we will do now. This is our test. This is the time.”

Nigri noted that last year was far from profitable. Still, “I am always donating more than [the year before],” he said. “I never decrease.”

The panel, which was chaired by conference organizer Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, pointed to Chabad-Lubavitch projects as models of charitable dollars maximized to produce the greatest good.

“Chabad is there for the people 24/7,” said Cohen. Emissaries “give up everything in their life to give to the Jews out there. What better place to invest your money?”

Rohr, president of NCH Capital, told the audience that he looks at his investments through a business lens. Projects with the least overhead and greatest impact deserved support, he explained. “We try to maximize the returns on our philanthropy.”

As such, Rohr drew an analogy from the world of venture capital.

“You back an entrepreneur if he has a lot of his own skin in the game, because he has a track record of success, and because his product is good. Chabad Houses are run by people personally invested in the outcome,” said Rohr. Emissaries “The best and the brightest among the young people of the Chabad movement don’t go into law, or medicine or business. They go into shlichus,” an all-encompassing Hebrew word referring to the dedication of one’s complete self to a mission.

Those that open Chabad Houses have “invested their life and their family’s life. Failure is not an option,” he added.

The lay leadership conference also included addresses by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the educational and social service arms of Chabad-Lubavitch, and Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar; an in-depth text-based study session; a speech by radio host Dennis Prager; and a talk by Rabbi Shraga Sherman, director of the Chabad Center of the Main Line in suburban Philadelphia, on a journey that took him from the elite Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania to rabbinical school to a Chabad House.

Participants came from locations stretching from Los Angeles to Berlin to Dover Heights, Australia, said conference organizer Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Chabad of North County in Yorba Linda, Calif.

“The event is about family coming together from across the globe,” he said, “to find new ways to assist in bolstering Judaism in their respective cities.”

It’s “about being a partner,” echoed Rohr. When times are tough, it shouldn’t just be the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who is up at night thinking about what to do. “The emissary and his philanthropic partner should both be up all night.”

It requires a dedication beyond giving money.

“Writing the check is crucial,” stated Rohr. “But there is much more to a partnership.”

This article originally appeared in News; reprinted with permission.