So That they May Live Among Us: The Uniqueness of Jewish Philanthropy

by Robert Hyfler

What is authentic and unique in Jewish philanthropy are both structure and approach and a much broadened definition of who we serve. The foundational text is in parshat Behar, Vayikrah (Leviticus) 25:35:

If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him – proselyte or resident – so that he can live you.

A reading of this text and the curious challenging phrase “so that he can live you” speaks volumes to us as a people and our enduring commitment to the concept of community.

All of us the torah implies have talents and powers that might falter, an abyss we may fall into. The beneficiaries of our efforts are like us – they are us. What is more is that we do for others in order to do for ourselves. Our community is a value in itself and when the pain and suffering of misfortune separates the individual from her or his community we must bring them back whole and productive.

Consider the above statement juxtaposed against a more typical understanding of assistance to the poor and downtrodden.

How many American charities, including early 20th century Jewish ones, began with the commitment of wealthy elites to service the very most vulnerable and at risk populations – the “others”. Within this framework, the powerless individual (the poor, the immigrant and the chronically challenged) were the primary and sole clients. They were not us and we could not conceive of being them. A social work agency or practitioner viewed their roles as defined by clear boundaries and limits, a fetish for privacy to shield the client but which often reinforced shame and embarrassment, a set of tactical interventions to move the individual or family to total self-sufficiency and a full exit from the service delivery system – to get them out not in. This model, with its long history of performance and many successes, its biases of services to the most needy, continues to have strong resonance within our society both in the public and voluntary sectors.

A Jewish based approach anchored in a concept of community operates under different inclinations and assumptions. Individuals and family units, regardless of distinctions of age, class or resources, (meaning all of us) optimally thrive through the mediation of strong, often activist, institutional and community structures. Developing and sustaining a network of life long nurturing and supportive relationships within a structurally rich community is a primary goal. Irreconcilable grief, loss of job and status, living with chronic and life threatening illness, the need to adopt, keeping a family whole, integrating a child with special needs into our lives, providing young families with the tools for Jewish living effects us all and is ever present in our community. There is no 1% that is naturally immune.

Practical implications are obvious. The institutions of community, agencies, schools and synagogues, must be viewed as both the service delivery system and a client of our Jewish philanthropic enterprise. As the task goes beyond meeting the needs of one individual or one family, or even dozens of families and individuals, the processes of collaboration and shared resources, the inclusion of all talents and institutional partners, must be ever broadened. Along with the professional practitioner or case worker the role and status of community and volunteer networks must be seen as full and equal. Community services must be constantly marketed to the widest audience possible – each and every one of us is a potential client, each of us knows and can reach out to someone in need. A Jewish community does not wait to be begged. And the shame of dislocation and loss of status must be banished forever. “ … so that he can live you”, so that all of us can live together as a functioning, supporting and empowering community.

Robert Hyfler is an organizational consultant with three decades of Jewish communal involvement and an occasional blogger on eJewish Philanthropy. He can be reached at