Philanthropy and Peoplehood – Giving with Jewish Wisdom

Chajm Guski via WikiMedia Commons

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Seth Linden

Effective philanthropy, in a sense, might provide connection, meaning, and purpose both to those who give, and to those who receive. 


What makes Jewish philanthropy unique? There may be as many answers as rabbis. While many in Jewish philanthropy aim to be relational (some point to a family systems theory), we might interrogate our assumptions here. Relational by whose standards, on whose terms, and who benefits? Others base Jewish philanthropy on the idea of Tzedakah, charity, or justice. And still others maintain that Jewish philanthropy remains too homogenous and self-serving. 

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Jewish donors – especially those of modest means – are among the most generous Americans, says a new report. And many of them make a high proportion of their gifts to causes that have nothing to do with their faith. About 76 percent of Jewish donors say they made a charitable gift last year, compared with 63 percent of non-Jews.” 

The Nonprofit Quarterly reports that American Jews lead in per capita giving “because it is ingrained in their traditions of charity, or tzedakah… Sixty percent of Jewish households earning less than $50,000 a year donate, compared with 46% of non-Jewish households in that income bracket… And while Jews, like other Americans, give to religious institutions, they give relatively less to religion and more to secular causes. While culture is critical, Jewish giving is boosted by two additional factors – education and wealth…” 

Jack Wertheimer’s study, How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy, focuses exclusively on big giving to Jewish causes. He claims that Jewish giving has taken on a highly elastic meaning in recent decades to the point where any philanthropy that helps others is treated as an expression of Jewish imperatives or “values.” 

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, for example, there is a model of liberal humanism, balancing the twin engines of universalism and particularism. Their Roadmap of strategic priorities is based on the following assumption: “In a world that is constantly shifting and changing, there remains a strong and persistent human desire for connection, meaning, and purpose. Judaism has continually evolved over thousands of years to meet these needs. Through investing in Jewish learning experiences, we can help individuals identify new ways to enhance their lives, strengthen their families and communities, and contribute to a better world.” In other words, Jewish education (and the philanthropy that drives it) is a means to an end, rather than the end in and of itself. We all want to feel connected, find meaning and have purpose – not only Jews (and not only as Jews) – and Judaism has particular wisdom about how to do this. 

The Jewish Virtual Library writes, “The American Jewish communal enterprise is a unique blending of Jewish religious traditions and the democratic pluralistic traditions of the United States. Out of biblical injunctions to protect the poor, orphans, widows and strangers, a vast institutional infrastructure, supported by voluntary philanthropy, has developed… The American Jewish philanthropic tradition has a parallel history. From Torah to Maimonides, American Jewish way of giving is influenced by a strong religious imperative for individualized tzedakah and by the development of modern American legal mechanisms that encourage private philanthropy.” 

After years of dialogue with the eminent Dr. Shlomi Ravid, I have come to believe that Jewish philanthropy does connect to Peoplehood, and yet there is a long way to go for a fully inclusive and collective culture therein. I see three themes being most resonant: 

  • Collective BelongingAm Yisrael. We Jews are a family. Rabbi Soloveitchik reminds us of Abraham’s dual covenant of fate (a shared history) and destiny (a shared future). We do it together, we are part of a collective. It is the Jewish trademark and source of strength. In these points and more, Jewish philanthropy seeks to create, build, and nurture community – a collective belonging to one another. And let us not forget those who have been traditionally excluded from Jewish life. As a wise colleague reminded me recently, “[Jews of Color] have had to essentially create their own organizations to give them place and power, to then over time ultimately be adapted into the broader performative White Jewish hegemony.” 
  • Universal vs. ParticularTikkun Olam. As noted often in Pirkei Avot, it is not our duty to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to neglect it. Jews do not have a monopoly on repairing the world, yet there is a shared tradition in heeding Hillel’s quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” We are told to look out first for ourselves, but simultaneously for the world. Holding these two in comfortable disequilibrium might be Jewish philanthropy’s most precious tension. 
  • Mutual Responsibility. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La Zeh. All of Israel are responsible for one another. Jews are responsible for one another and accountable for how other Jews behave and act. In this sense, it has been remarkable to see the shared communal response to #MeToo (#GamAni) and the evolution and progress of the Safety Respect Equity Coalition. Jews share a fate and a covenant of destiny. Throughout time, the Jewish community provided. And Jewish philanthropy provides and is responsible for itself and the welfare of its people. 

These overlapping themes say a good deal about philanthropy and peoplehood. For one, philanthropy can be, and should be, relational and collaborative. Effective philanthropy, in a sense, might provide connection, meaning, and purpose both to those who give, and to those who receive. It might guide not just the what, but the why and the how of giving. Philanthropy has provoked major consolidations in operations of local and national institutions, with the confluence of mergers, partnerships, closures, and merely staying relevant.

Today’s challenges are many. Rampant anti-Semitism, institutional racism, sexism that is all too pervasive, and white supremacy that threatens all of us. We hear cries of Jews assimilating and Jews seeking more diversity in their pews. 

And yet for as many challenges as we face in the Jewish community, there is opportunity for hope that philanthropy can revive and revitalize. Trustees and boards of directors have an important role to play as the stewards of both private and family foundations, and the nonprofit beneficiaries whom they fund and lead. Greater partnerships between lay and professional, more intentional pipelines of volunteer leaders, additional data aligning performance with organizational metrics, and a new paradigm of board structure and process may be needed. More than anything, a culture of inquiry might move boards in the right direction to foster a greater collaborative and curious approach to philanthropy. 

Greater gender equity is needed in top Jewish leadership positions. Greater racial and ethnic diversity overall is needed, and boards and search committees can also help in this regard. The leaders of Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, Bend the Arc, and Leading Edge among many others, are doing essential, culture shifting work here. And a greater sense of trust – a philanthropy based on trust – is needed. Brilliant thinkers, scholars and researchers like Sharon Brous, Yehuda Kurtzer and Ari Y. Kelman continue  to speak openly about the power dynamics in philanthropy and what might be done to mitigate them. 

Philanthropy can strengthen Jewish peoplehood by focusing both on the individual and the collective. What if we had more inclusive grant committees that involved community members, students, educators, and other direct beneficiaries in the process of giving. With the proliferation of donor advised funds and giving circles, foundations and philanthropy have the singular role and responsibility to convene others and promote equitable and inclusive thought leadership in the field. 

Philanthropy’s role might be to take the lead from educators and community needs. In the words of Bryan Stevenson, let’s get more proximate to the issues, be direct, prioritize and personalize. Philanthropy can convene, philanthropy can reinforce, philanthropy can hold the center. Jewish philanthropy, like Jewish peoplehood, can be a guiding light for our ethics, morals, and mussar. Leading with AnavahSavlanut, and Rachamim, among others, giving with Jewish wisdom and character might be a salve for what ails us as a community now. 

Seth Linden is Principal of Gather Consulting, where he advises philanthropists and nonprofits on board culture, governance, and leadership development. He is a Coro Lead LA fellow and is on the board of Jewish Studio Project. Most recently, Seth was a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation in San Francisco. His passion is connecting ideas and people. 

eJewish Philanthropy is the exclusive digital publisher of the individual Peoplehood Papers essays.