Lesson learned

Take care of your own

The following is adapted from the author’s address to the 2023 JFN West Regional Convening on Nov. 6-7 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Illustration by arthobbit/Getty Images

I was brought up in the universalist tradition of Judaism. I believe that all human beings have the same intrinsic value and the same Divine dignity, and I believe that tikkun olam is the most important mitzvah Jews can do. At the same time, I don’t feel guilty for being more attuned to the suffering of my own, to be more affected by what happens to Israel than to other countries. 

And that’s not wrong. 

Solidarity works in concentric circles or not at all. Without caring for your own, you can’t care for others. You may believe you do, but you don’t. Caring for your family helps you learn about caring in general. You care about your children, then about your friends, then about your tribe, then about your people and then about the world. It doesn’t work the other way around. 

Philanthropy sometimes falls into that trap. 

In fact, a whole movement called “effective altruism” posits that one needs to give to those places that maximize good for the largest number of people. For example, nobody should give to, say museums, while people are hungry. And you shouldn’t give to the homeless in New York City, because with the same money you could help many more people in Africa. 

If something sounds too simple, it’s because it is, and this is no exception. Besides many practical problems that this approach has, there’s one that is insurmountable. Yes, every human has the same intrinsic value, so one should make a dispassionate calculation about the biggest benefit for the largest number of people and proceed in consequence. The problem is that human beings don’t operate like that. If God forbid you are in a shipwreck and you can only save one child, “effective altruism” would mean that you have no right to pick your own child over another. Or putting it differently, it’d be OK to starve your own children to death because the same amount of money that you spend feeding them would feed double the number of Indian children. If somebody applied that logic, they’d be monsters.

And yet, that’s the logic we apply to our own people in many cases. Eighty percent of Jewish philanthropy is directed to non-Jewish causes. While that is admirable, events like that of Oct. 7 remind us that, when push comes to shove, Jews can depend only on themselves. 

I’m not ungrateful to the United States and other countries that stand with Israel, but I’m talking about the response of the society, how quickly the solidarity disappears. First, it’s the “contextualization” of the massacre, which turns into “understanding,” then the “understanding” turns into justification, which then turns into cheering. Nobody even finds it surprising that the calls for a “cease-fire now” don’t include a demand for the release of the hostages. 

There are only 15 million Jews in the world out of the 9 billion people on the planet; and nobody who isn’t Jewish, with some notable exceptions, is rushing to donate to Jews or Israel. 

In this crisis we saw allies — those who received our commitment and financial largesse — turn against us. While heartbreaking, that experience has re-centered us. It reminded us that Theodor Herzl’s words from 130 years ago are still valid today. He wrote:

“We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, but it’s not permitted to us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes superloyal; in vain do we make sacrifices of life and property for our societies; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In vain.”

We rediscovered that, even in the eyes of our allies, Jews are eternally “on probation,” subjected to a never-ending stream of litmus tests to prove that we belong. That is painful but, in a way, salutary. The Band-Aid was pulled off brutally, but now we know where we stand. Now we know that there’s nothing wrong with us prioritizing our own, nothing wrong with us doing what nobody else will do for us. 

We rediscovered that we are one. 

And that’s not a silly silver lining. What happened on Oct. 7 is an unmitigated tragedy. There’s no silver lining, there’s no glass half full. But, once tragedy struck, that rediscovery, that realization that we are a people and we depend on each other, will help us rebuild. In fact, it’s the only thing that will. 

After rediscovering that we are one people, a new question arises: What do we owe each other as individual members of this collective?

In the post-Enlightenment world, that question was organized around the notion of a social contract. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau established the idea that countries, peoples and societies are organized by an agreement between the individuals that constitute the nation. But that agreement is purely transactional: individuals forgo some of their natural freedoms so that greater freedoms can be attained. 

Judaism has a different idea of the social contract: the covenant. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote: 

“In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment. It is more like a marriage than a commercial transaction. Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about ‘Me’ and ‘You’; covenants are about ‘Us.’”

In a social contract, an individual has claims on society. In a covenant, individuals have mutual duties. In a social contract, you have a bill of rights. In a covenant you have that too, but you also have a bill of duties. 

This terrible crisis should help us rebuild our Jewish covenant, understanding that we have not only rights but also obligations towards each other. What can we do today to actualize our covenant? I have a few ideas:

  1. Commit to cultivate and enhance your own sense of peoplehood. What can you do to feel more connected to other Jews and Israel? 
  1. Peoplehood can’t be only about kinship. Feeling the pain of your fellow Jews is necessary, but not sufficient. You need to put content into that peoplehood, and that implies studying, learning Judaism and including Jewish practices in your life; making personal decisions that enhance your Jewishness. 
  1. Be vocal. Now is the time for moral clarity and calling out bad behaviors. Some of us may lose the seats we have in some places, from university boards to social justice organizations. So be it. If you can’t bring your full self to a place — including your Zionism and your love for Israel — don’t be there. Don’t fall for Faustian bargains. And stand tall; don’t cower in fear. 
  1. Fight for the Israel you want. Israel is the collective project of the Jewish People, the only one we have. So, you have a stake there. The leaders of the pro-democracy protesters showed us that there’s no contradiction in fighting for Israel and against its government’s policies when they’re bad. In fact, they excelled at both. 
  1. Re-center your philanthropy around Jewish causes. I welcome the awakening of donors to universities that stopped giving to hotbeds of hatred. It’s great to say no. But then, to what do we say yes? Make a commitment to move your philanthropy to Israeli and Jewish causes. Again, there are woefully few of us. Like you, I know millions of cases in which Jewish funders may make a $5,000 gift to the local federation and $50,000 gift to an alma mater that doesn’t even need it. And if you want to fund universal causes like climate change, gender issues or poverty, there are many Jewish outlets to do that. 
  1. This is not time for egos, but for working together. Reach out to other funders and inspire your grantees to work together. Grantees are going to follow your lead if you walk the walk. 

This is the time to look inward, to discover that solidarity and care starts at home, and that you can’t love others if you don’t love your own. There’s nothing wrong with that. Now is the time to discover the joy of being part of a caring community and a people that survived the worst and always came back stronger. 

Tolstoy said, “The Jews taught the world the art of being a people.” Now is the time to deploy that art — not to teach it to the world, but to relearn it ourselves.  

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.