The Kavana of Giving

by Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum

Nearly eight years ago, over a round of birthday drinks, I chatted with a group of friends. I had a vision for a new Jewish community that I wanted to create in Seattle, and the project needed a name. I described what I was imagining: a Jewish organization that would encourage its participants to think purposefully about the role that Judaism played in their lives. My friend Jessica, a Hebrew translator by profession, suggested the name “Kavana.” In rabbinic texts, the word “kavana” (meaning intention or spontaneity) expresses an individual’s aim to rise above the fixed liturgy (“keva,” routine) and cultivate a sense of inner devotion in prayer. I liked this name immediately because it spoke to the aspirational quality of our new community, and the value we placed on making Judaism personally meaningful.

Since that time, we at Kavana have spent a lot of time thinking about how money and financial support figures into the Jewish community equation. Along the way, we have considered the relative advantages and disadvantages of a membership model with a dues structure (keva) or a nonprofit structure that relies primarily on voluntary giving (kavana). Our constituents – being mostly of the younger generation and with a decidedly west-coast vibe – have consistently expressed a preference towards the latter, more elective model.

To support this vision in Jewish sources, I looked to texts about kavana such as the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah 3:7, which reads:

If one were passing behind a synagogue, or if his house was close to a synagogue, and he heard the sound of the shofar – if he inclined his heart, he has fulfilled his obligation; but if not, he has not carried out his duty (“Im kivein libo yatza, v’im lo lo yatza”).

In this scenario, an individual accidentally stumbles upon the opportunity to hear the sounding of the shofar. The objective fact that he has heard the sound is not enough to ensure that he has fulfilled his halakhic obligation; it is the subjective presence (or absence) of kavana which does the trick.

This text offers strong support for an argument about the importance of kavana. To draw out a parallel to Jewish giving today, one might argue about the relative value of money depending on the intent with which it is given. A text such as this one might reasonably lead us to believe that a dollar paid as a registration fee for a program (a “fee-for-service” consumer transaction) is worth less than a dollar given as a donation from an individual who understands the worth of the community and wants to ensure its future. In the exuberance of trying to reach out to a young and unaffiliated group, my community in Seattle has made precisely this argument, believing that ultimately people will give just as much through kavana-style giving as they would through keva-style giving, and that they will probably feel better about it too.

The data from Connected to Give rings true, and reflects a reality which I see around me every day. Younger generations of Jews, in particular, are not going to give because they are “supposed to;” the only chance of engaging them is by building institutions that speak the language of meaning, offer real value, and afford them opportunities to act from a place of kavana.

But, seven years into this experiment in building a Jewish community called Kavana, I am surprised to find myself yearning for more keva, and seeing evidence of it everywhere. In the mishnah quoted above, for example, even though keva is not mentioned explicitly, it is the underlying premise of the whole scenario. The mishnah’s case wouldn’t make sense if the individual in question didn’t already live in close proximity to the synagogue, know that it was Rosh Hashanah, or understand hearing the sound of the shofar as a halakhic obligation. Without keva, kavana wouldn’t make any sense. Haven’t we lost something if young Jews of today aren’t motivated to give to support the Jewish community out of a sense of obligation, as part of a fixed practice?

It is clear that we’re facing a very new reality, and in order to succeed in building Jewish community, one has to be aware of the findings. In the years and decades to come, more and more people who give Jewishly will do so from a place of kavana, and we need to build organizations, relationships, and fundraising campaigns that reflect these trends which this study has clearly demonstrated. But, I also believe that there is some value in working against these trends. Maybe this year, my kavana for Rosh Hashanah will be to think about what I can do as a rabbi to inspire keva!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum is the Rabbi, Executive Director and co-founder of the Kavana Cooperative, a Seattle based community that empowers participants to create a meaningful Jewish life and a positive Jewish identity. This essay was commissioned to accompany the September 3, 2013 release of Connected to Give, the first in a series of reports published by Jumpstart on the first-ever nationwide study of the charitable behaviors and motivations of American Jews.