The Art of the YK Ask

yk-appealBy Sherri W. Morr

Every year as I think about preparing for Yom Kippur I consider Yom Kippur’s past. I think of many years ago when I first learned about people wearing white and not wearing leather. At a high end orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills I would have sworn that the very stylish women would not be wearing tennis shoes. Knowing fashion as I (thought) did, no way would I see Keds with stunning shul clothes. Wrong. It was an important lesson for me in learning about Jews who were religious. They really were religious and did not give fashion a second thought when faced with adhering to Jewish tradition. Who knew? There they were, even the most stylish with their tennis shoes and smart outfits. This was slightly before espadrilles (no leather and style).

Then I go to thinking about no food. I recall one year as a teenager going to lunch at a diner where congregants could see us as we were breaking fast for lunch. Someone even stopped in and accosted us saying something to the effect of “You girls need to eat somewhere you are not on display.” Opinions are not shy on Yom Kippur. When the reform synagogue took a break, what were we supposed to do other than eat? Sitting all day seemed foreign. Now activities are developed to keep you sitting … yoga, mindfulness, meditation, speakers of renown and when all else fails discussions on Israel. Anything to keep you sitting until Neilah.

Then there is the ask. For some it is the dreaded ask … the Israel Bonds men of yesteryears … heavy set men in dark shirts and light ties who made the pitch to buy bonds for Israel. Because Kol Nidre garnered the most populous attendance the asks developed into appeals for membership, for dollars for education and Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs. After the Six Day War the appeals were generally to support Israel. To give to make Israel strong, to show you were a Zionist, to announce your willingness to stretch your gift, donate til it hurts, and demonstrate that Israel was first in your charitable giving. One synagogue I attended would not start Kol Nidre til the entire congregation had turned in their folded down tab card. That synagogue membership, that year, finally started Kol Nidre while the auxiliary service members were home in bed, already dreaming about breaking fast with lox and bagels.

Its one thing to ask for money when you are sitting at a desk looking eye ball to eyeball at the prospect. It’s another thing to stand at the podium to ask a somewhat anonymous audience of 500 blank faces to up their donation. Captains of industry, heads of major corporations, entrepreneurial types galore and have a lot of trouble asking. Why that is we are just not sure. They are not asking for themselves … they are not trying to have you the audience help send their kids to Jewish summer camp, they are not asking for free temple membership for their relatives who cannot seem to manage their meager incomes, nor are they asking to build a big fancy building with your name on it. No they are asking for a couple of very good reasons:

  1. They themselves are giving, so you too should give; giving is not private, not in the Jewish world anyway.
  2. They tell you will you will hardly miss the money: it will not require you to give up your BMW; it will allow you to still go to the movies, and take that trip to Hawaii, although so what if you stay 5 days rather than 7.
  3. When you bitch and moan about the lack of comfortable chairs, it will allow you to feel responsible that you helped repair that discomfort.
  4. You can, now when people complain about the lack of cake at the Oneg, you know in your heart you made the Onegs better, more successful, more people come, membership grows, and ultimately big donors like an array of cake. You become a macher.

Jews are funny. It’s in their blood. So it’s become routine to have the ask be funny. It’s Jerry Seinfeld, right in your own shul. For older folks, its Jack Benny with his arms folded meowing how important it is to give. Its Joan Rivers ( of blessed memory) with not a crease, fabulous jewelry, every hair in place and a fair amount of cleavage, saying “come on, what do I have to do to make you give”? And then that look, OY.

We give because we are asked. No one asks, we do not give. They don’t ask, it’s not our fault that we did not give.

But take a moment and imagine giving … what does that feel like. It can feel amazing, huge, and oh so benevolent. You recall your own grandma living in a tenement in Brooklyn, and here you are living in a million dollar condo, sending your children to Jewish day school, and summer camp. Belonging to a shul, paying dues, helping to fund a Hebrew school field trip to the Holocaust Museum. You cannot say that does not feel good. It’s impossible. In fact you like yourself more. You review in your mind the steps it took, the hard work, the strength and courage to push ahead and make the hard decisions that resulted in security and the ability to help others. Life is indeed good. Even YK is good because only once a year are you put in this place to make you think like this. You can be grateful for what you have, and share it. It’s not complex, it does not require a Ph.D; it does require community and belief and the ability to respond. To be magnanimous, to be open, and to throw out all the cynical negative thoughts you may briefly have. Giving is good, no doubt, and to that end I hope you gave. But it is never too late. Call today. Call now. Fulfill the need you know you have.

Sherri has spent the last several decades working & consulting in nonprofit management, both in and out of the Jewish community. Currently she is the Director for the West Coast Region of American Society of University of Haifa. Prior to this she was director for the Western States for Jewish National Fund.