Sacred Conversations About Money

AMP.ejewish.centerGive Better. Give Together. Sacred Conversations About Money
A 7-Part Series on Launching and Sustaining a Successful Jewish Giving Circle

This article is Part 5 in a series about giving circles. (Read past articles here.) Giving circles, groups who pool donations and decide together which causes to support, are a powerful tool for providing anyone – at any age, in any place, at any giving level – with access to an exciting, intentional giving experience. Giving circle members learn and do something about the issues that mean the most to them within their community of friends, family, fellow program alumni – anyone.

As part of our effort to expand and strengthen giving circles in the Jewish community, Amplifier: The Jewish Giving Circle Movement is proud to present this seven-part series to help you start and sustain a giving circle inspired by Jewish values. This series draws upon Amplifier’s Resource Library and the experiences of dozens of giving circles already in the Amplifier network.

Part 5: Sacred Conversations About Money
By Julie R. Sissman

Questions about money are some of the most profound ethical, spiritual, and values-based questions of our day.

All we have to do is look at the news: President Obama and members of Congress talking about income inequality; investigations into alleged financial improprieties (Sheldon Silver and Bibi Netanyahu are just two examples); online discussions about how we can help our children to be the “opposite of spoiled” (as coined in Ron Lieber’s new book); Nicholas Kristoff’s recent discussions of privilege and compassion.

Choices about how we spend our money greet us at every turn – do I take a taxi or the subway today? Do I buy coffee at Starbucks or make a cup at the office? As Jews, we may also wonder about the tzedakah we give. Donation requests from our alma maters and various causes enter our inboxes weekly, forcing us to wonder: Is tzedakah about fulfilling an obligation to care for those in need? Or an expression of our deepest values? Or do we desire to see some sort of social return on our tzedakah “investment”?

We could all benefit from somewhere to ask these questions; grappling with the answers can help us live lives filled with integrity and deeper meaning through the choices we make about money.

The best space I’ve found for these conversations is my Jewish giving circle, HEKDESH, made up of alumni of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel. With HEKDESH, I have the opportunity to delve into Jewish wisdom, old and new, to gain insights that now make me feel better equipped than ever to navigate this complicated territory.

By discussing topics like how our consumption relates to our tzedakah, how generosity of the heart is related to generosity of the wallet, and the “obligation” of every person to give, my own thinking about money and tzedakah has been transformed.

Jewish tradition asks: Do you give to those in your city before giving to the needy far away? (Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 251:5) Do you give priority to Jews or non-Jews, and why? (The Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 61a) These are important questions that every giving circle – and every tzedakah giver – grapples with. Engaging with Jewish wisdom and tradition to inform our decisions enhances our experience of decision-making and provides a powerful connection to Jews who were grappling with the exact same questions centuries ago.

Jewish giving circles don’t only focus on strategic grantmaking. Many also have as part of their missions to affect and change their members – to move young people into a habit of giving, to enable members of all ages to be more intentional and/or generous with their giving, and to create communities of people who are more comfortable talking about money and giving.

In fact, our tradition offers deep insights on how giving can impact the giver. Maimonides talks about the relative merits of giving; is it better to give $10 to 100 different causes, or $1,000 to one? Part of the thinking is based on how each choice would affect the giver. We can also look at the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Again and again, Pharoah’s heart is “hardened.” At HEKDESH, we’ve asked: Are our own hearts hardened or open, and how does this impact how we give, as well as our broader actions in the world?

As American Jews report feeling more and more disconnected from Jewish life, giving circles also offer an alternative, new, and attractive form of Jewish community. As a space where we can grapple with important questions, Jewish giving circles provide the kinds of connection that Brene Brown describes in The Gifts of Imperfection: connection is “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” By their nature – collaborative and egalitarian – Jewish giving circles require active listening, humility, and openness to being influenced by others’ ideas, which fosters this uniquely deep type of connection.

This unique connection also comes, perhaps ironically, because money is so hard to talk about. Talking about it in a safe space with “trust builders” in place, quickly builds a sense of intimacy and connection. The depth of discussion that then becomes possible is the kind that can motivate people to action – whether that action is giving money or also giving time to a cause that the group has decided is important to them.

For me, being a part of HEKDESH and joining with people who are similarly interested in exploring issues of money, priorities, justice, values, ethics and spirituality through a Jewish lens has been truly life-changing. My personal tzedakah is more intentional, I’m committed to giving more, and I feel a greater link with Jews through time and space.

In Jewish tradition, there is no blessing to say when giving tzedakah. As part of my experience with HEKDESH, I’ve created one that attaches deeper spiritual meaning to my tzedakah practice; I offer it here so that you can use it, too:

May my tzedakah decisions be thoughtful and intentional. May this tzedakah offering make a positive difference in the world. May I give it with a generosity of spirit and humility. May I find ways, through this tzedakah offering or other activities, to inspire others to also give intentionally and generously. And may my thoughts and actions of tzedakah help me to have more feelings of compassion and loving kindness in all aspects of my life

To help enhance your own tzedakah practice, I invite you to check out Amplifier – a new platform and set of resources to help you join an existing giving circle or start your own. You can also feel free to use our HEKDESH Tzedakah Learning Series to deepen your individual or collective giving.

May you – and may all of us – find our way to a deeper experience of giving, of connection, and of community.

Julie R. Sissman is an organization and leadership development consultant. She is also a board member and chair of the external relations committee for HEKDESH, the giving circle of alumni of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel. She’s gotten “hooked” on giving circles, and, along with her husband, is now also a member of the Natan Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of NY.