Reviewing: The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic

The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic; Edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore; Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2019.

By Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W.

In Sacred Exchange, Rabbi Mary L. Zamore has provided those involved in Jewish organizationssynagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish social service agencies, Jewish community centers, federations, schools of Jewish communal service and all other nonprofits – a much-needed guide for both training new professional and volunteer leaders and providing ongoing education for veteran leaders in the Jewish community. Yes, this is a bold statement, but I am confident that anyone who reads and studies her excellently developed anthology of thirty-four essays and comments will agree with me. The book can be read as a stand-alone resource for anyone who wants to study what Judaism says about our relationship to financial resources and how we can use them to act responsibly toward our community, those in need, and our obligations in fulfilling our religious requirements, if we choose to do so. However, it can have greater impact if read in the context of group study because it is designed to raise questions and issues that can become the focus of lively and thought-provoking discussions.

The book opens with a series of vignettes that present ethical dilemmas regarding money and wealth. Rabbi Zamore selected authors who then go on to analyze these dilemmas using classic Jewish texts that focus on the following issues, among others: the power conferred by money and wealth, how financial resources have given us opportunities to participate in building and strengthening Israel, our ethical obligations as employers, the role of money in religious life, and how to have all those difficult and uncomfortable but necessary conversations about money, wealth, and equality with our families, our colleagues, and with those we serve.

Rabbi Zamore recruited an insightful group of rabbis, scholars, Jewish communal professionals, and volunteers to write these chapters that push us to look at how we relate to money and the personal and professional decisions we make about supporting synagogues and other services in the Jewish community. As someone who has spent close to 50 years working for the Jewish community and contributing financially to numerous causes and organizations, I found myself thinking about the professional decisions I made, as well as my personal tzedakah choices, and wondering how the text would have assisted me in making better decisions in my work with professionals and volunteer leaders. Generally, those of us involved in soliciting donations for causes and organizations make a case for giving focused on the needs of individuals and the community; we emphasize the impact of donors investment on those needs. Yet we rarely engage our solicitors in a discussion of the Jewish perspective on money and the use of money in the community. Sacred Exchange, with its wealth of Jewish text study, can enable such discussions.

This book’s underlying assumption is that all of us have to be involved financially in the Jewish community: the challenge is how to do so in an informed, knowledgeable, and Jewish way. Each chapter focuses on the implications for the individual within the context of community. For example, several chapters describe the Jewish philanthropic system: they provide a summary history of the role of the international and national organizations and their relationship to Israel, examine the current challenges facing the Jewish philanthropic establishment and alternatives to it, and future trends in giving. It is then in the hands of readers to decide if they want to engage in the system and how they would like to play a role in meeting both their financial responsibilities and their obligations to the Jewish community.  

The book has an important role to play in the future of fundraising in the Jewish world. It should be discussed by all fundraising professionals and lay committees, whether a standing committee or an ad hoc group created to raise funds for a particular project or program. The entire text or the chapters on Jewish text should be used to prepare people to solicit prospective donors; this material can help those doing the ask to understand the nature of cultivating Jewish donors who should be giving Jewishly.

It has taken our leadership many years to learn that the “back of the bus, arm twisting approach” of solicitation does not work and that solicitations have to be based on understanding the donor’s interest. We need to go further and build a Jewish approach to solicitation that has strong roots in Jewish text, religion, and philosophy. Rabbi Zamore has provided us the tools to engage people in this educational process that will create a cadre of involved, educated, and committed professional and volunteer leaders who will not only raise needed resources but will also “raise” needed leaders to continue this holy work in the future.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and occasional contributor to