Reigniting the Soul of Philanthropy: Why the Haredim Don’t Need to Change

Written for this week’s JFN Conference

By Yael S. Simon

Social change. Integration. Legitimacy.

These are only a few of the words bandied about when discussing the importance of Haredim becoming a more productive part of Israeli society. One of the most critical issues discussed in the recent elections was the focus of Haredi employment and its long-term importance in the economy. Although partially eclipsed by foreign policy issues, Israel’s Haredi employment issue has been the go-to topic for all domestic policy discussions and is possibly just one-step down from the campaign for army recruitment.

This article is not about the elections, because the elections won’t change the Haredim. In fact, no one and nothing will. Not is it an article about the mechanics of social mobility, education to employment or Haredi integration. This article is about the perception of problem solving from the perspective of funders.

To deal with these issues and effectively find a solution to the conundrum of this seeming oxymoron, ‘Haredi Employment’, we need to examine all sides of the discussion.

In effect, we need to try and empathize with all sides of the psychological table – how did we get here? What is everyone thinking? What is this issue really about? In my presentation for ELI talks, I suggested the same is true about philanthropy in general, but the rule applies to just about every discussion dealing with society and its issues in which philanthropy must play a pivotal, leadership role.

Philanthropy is a dynamic that requires each of its players to truly understand the perspectives of all those seated around the table. Through this looking glass, if we begin by legitimizing the Haredim as ‘one of us’, not a group that will simply ‘go away’ or a cause for social fracture, but rather attempt to understand them as if we were trying to be more compassionate toward understanding our family members, we might begin to arrive at the answers above.

Practicing Empathy

For historical and cultural reasons we have arrived at a juncture where the poverty levels of Haredi society have now reached an alarming epidemic level of 80%. There is no sustainability in these communities, no quality of material life, not to mention a rapid deterioration of the family structure, malnutrition and some would say that poverty has become the fuel that has fired many of the youth leaving the path. The debts and borrowing has reached sky high levels and the pressure to put food on the table to feed 10, 12 hungry mouths has become an unbearable burden – a desperation each and every one of us should be able to understand at some level. The reasons this has happened are less important than the need to find the solution, and not a national panacea. An individual, empathetic approach is required to satisfy and fulfill each person’s need to feel needed, feel purpose and rise above his or her adversity with enormous dignity.

Desperation is an odd thing. It can depress us so we sink to depths of sadness we considered unfathomable. Or, it can propel us to turn things around – help us believe in ourselves, so that our entire modus operandi becomes mind over reality and the will to succeed and overcome adversity becomes a mission of dignity and pride. This is not unique to Haredim; it is universal. And that motivation must and only come from within the individual. No one will sell that package as a solution, much like any diet plan cannot be successful without the individual wanting it himself or herself. And we should understand that any solution, national or individual would begin with that psychological premise.

This issue is actually about seeing ourselves in a silver-backed glass mirror, not simply looking out of the window in pity or disgust at another’s misfortune. When we look at the Haredi communities in Israel, we tend to see them as “other” – to think they belong to another era, someone else’s people. Why? Perhaps it is that the issues they face are just a reflection of the same challenges we all face in life: finding individual purpose and fulfillment through the ability to sustain one’s self in this world.

The Role of the Philanthropist

Rav, the primary Amorah instructed his main student Rav Kahana, “Skin the carcass in the marketplace and do not rely on other people for your livelihood, and do not say ‘I am an important person’ or ‘I am a Cohen,’” implying that a profession should not define or change a person; rather it is a means to self-sufficiency and pride in purpose. And this is the effect we see when employment is tied to the dignity of a person’s approach to life. Only good things can come from such a motivated individual.

To the credit of many Haredi-focused programs, this has begun to shift the attitude those who hold the greatest stake in this investment – the funders themselves. We have come to agree that we must stop handing out fish, but the more we see ourselves as those who provide the appropriate fishing rods to the right people, the more people will take those rods and be motivated to feed themselves.

And therein lies the key to a philanthropist’s perceived aim over ‘solving the problem’. No one and nothing will change the Haredim because in essence they do not need to change, per se; they need to support themselves and their families in perpetuating our heritage, our collective history and enriching the social and Jewish fabric of Israel. Quality education and quality employment with an approach that is organic and not forced is what will ignite this sector. But restoring dignity to individuals, motivating them with purpose to live the type of lifestyle they choose, not change but rather creating more opportunities in lifethis is the spirit we as funders can inspire if we learn to give with the empathy and acceptance this requires. It is up to us to understand that, embrace it, respect it and support it. It is up to us to see that the struggle is not unique to them, and once we accept that, our support to enable self-sufficiency will be meaningful and effective.

No election manifesto can accomplish this, nor can politicians promise the ‘problem’ will be fixed, but support for these opportunities will. More than the investment of money, will be our investment of broad-mindedness and identifying with a universal need to thrive.

Charity as Opportunity

All charitable roles of giving and receiving are interchangeable and symbiotic, and we must learn to see them as such. The commentaries on the Torah in Parashat Mishpatim expound on the word, ‘V’notnu’  ?and you will give?, which exists as a palindrome in Hebrew. This is to indicate that whatever a person gives to charity will return to him and he will not lack anything because of it. One who is giving is automatically receiving. In this case, not only are we the givers receiving a warm glow of helping a person to fulfill his potential, we are gaining a stronger national culture, one where all individuals are welcome and this will in turn pay back immeasurably in society.

This is not an article about social change. It is about creating opportunities. And perhaps we are standing at the precipice of the greatest opportunity in our collective identity, and the greatest change must come from us as funders, as philanthropists and how we view the definition of ‘problem solving.’ Empathy is the soul of philanthropy. Perhaps when we mirror the recipients with our empathy, we will be able to build on that which unites us to make a better world.

Yael S Simon is Executive Vice President International Development of the Kemach Foundation.