By Shana Medel
Can a nonprofit organization accept donations from a troublesome figure? That’s the million-dollar question.
As a Jewish professional, you’re likely to grapple with this dilemma at your organization – if you haven’t already.
On Sunday, 21 teams representing campuses stretching from North America to Israel wrangled with the same question at the Collegiate Moot Beit Din. The annual gathering at Princeton University Hillel, powered by the Hadar Institute and supported by Maimonides Fund, is the first and only halachic debate competition for Jewish college students.
The case scenario focused on a campus environmental organization struggling with raising money. Due to a lack of resources, the group has been unable to expand beyond 11 campuses or continue providing monetary aid to poor communities affected by climate change.
However, the student organization could resolve this problem by accepting a sizeable donation – of an unspecified amount – from a man who became prosperous by investing in a wide range of businesses.
The hiccup: one of those businesses has been accused of human rights violations against asylum seekers and falsifying reports to overcharge the government for services.
Each of the teams brought multiple Jewish sources into conversation with one another to address benefitting from theft, performing a mitzvah through a wrongdoing, redeeming ill-gotten money and flattering a transgressor.
An overwhelming majority of teams argued it is halachically permissible to accept the donation – under certain conditions. Some of their strongest arguments were the following:
- The donor isn’t a convicted criminal, meaning he must be treated as an innocent man until proven guilty of human rights abuses and theft. Stating or implying otherwise would violate motzi shem ra, the Jewish ban on slander.
- Only a portion of the donor’s money was generated through the allegedly corrupt business. The medieval commentator Rashi said if most of a person’s money is free of theft, others accept their charity free of concern that it was obtained through illicit means.
- Based on the prohibition of chanufah, flattering someone whose speech or behavior transgresses Judaism, the donor cannot be publicly honored with a program named after him or another form of recognition. Sha’arei Teshuvah, a Jewish ethical work of the Middle Ages, warns against “mentioning the good without mentioning the bad” because a person “will be thought of as righteous by all those who hear and will be honored and will gain power and triumph,” allowing them to escape accountability and continue their questionable behavior without remorse.
- The environmental benefit to society outweighs the ethical discomfort of accepting the donation. However, the campus organization must only use the money for services that directly benefit the Earth.
Rebecca Oestreicher of Stony Brook University said her team’s case was influenced by l’dor v’dor, a Hebrew phrase meaning from generation to generation.
“We were trying to make the future better – not for ourselves but for the generations to come,” Oestreicher said. “We tried to keep politics and Jewish law separate to remain more objective when analyzing Jewish law. Of course, we care about politics, but the law is not political.”
Only a handful of teams argued that the burden of tainted money outweighed its philanthropic value. Their strongest arguments were the following:
- The campus organization cannot possess any money touched by theft or abhorrence because it’s equated with idolatry – one of the cardinal sins of Judaism. Sefer HaHinukh, a 13th century work on mitzvot, explains the prohibition against clinging to money acquired through “theft, extortion, interest or from any ugly thing; since all of this is included in the auxiliaries of idolatry.”
- Even if the campus organization accepted the money without publicly honoring the donor with a plaque or other form of recognition, his name would still be on the organization’s donor list. That alone cheapens the integrity of the group.
- Arba’ah Turim, a four-part codification of written Jewish law, details the prohibition against benefiting from a presumed thief, who is assumed to have stolen everything he owns. The donor in the fictional case has indirectly stolen from the government, making him a thief.
“No single source made the case for us,” said Zachary Bernstein of George Washington University. “It was about boiling 20 pages of sources down into a coherent argument that does as much justice as possible to an incredibly complex case.”
A panel of Jewish educators who served as judges declared four winning teams. And there wasn’t a simple conclusion, evinced by conflicted rulings from the judges, many of whom were rabbis.
Of the winners, three teams argued for accepting the donation and only a single team argued against.
Each team cited similar Jewish sources, ranging from Talmudic scholars to modern-day Jewish commentators. Yet, they came to different conclusions.
“There is no black and white answer,” said Abraham Waserstein, a Princeton Hillel student who founded the Collegiate Moot Beit Din. “The answers to a lot of these questions, especially the ones we’re looking at, are in a grey area. To create an informed decision in that grey area, we need as much information and perspective as possible. I believe that Jewish law helps maximize our decision-making process.”
Tackling a murky issue from every angle is crucial to making a thoughtful conclusion, especially when it comes to the integrity of your organization. As you search for answers in the grey area of a dubious donor, consider the origins of their money, nature of their actions, their need for public praise and how you would use the donation to help further your nonprofit’s mission.
Shana Medel is a senior communications associate at Hillel International.