The Power of Interfaith Giving Circle

By Shari L. Edelstein

It’s challenging enough to make philanthropic decisions on your own or with your spouse – but making those decisions collectively, and with a highly diverse group, some of whom have very different beliefs? Sounds unlikely. Defying likelihood, the Olive Branch Giving Circle in Boulder, CO, brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim community members to discuss the conflict in Israel and Palestine and ultimately make a collective philanthropic decision about peace-related projects to fund.

While most giving circles focus on bringing people together from within one ethnic or religious group, the Olive Branch offered people from the three Abrahamic faiths a chance to dialogue about their faith, philanthropy and the conflict, and to pool their resources to support efforts to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis. Their conversation was as fruitful and powerful as their generosity.

The giving circle was made up of fifteen participants –  five from each faith  – and included two rabbis, three pastors, Israelis and Palestinians, secular and observant.

Each session began with a blessing: “May we take this time together to learn and to share, to reflect and to act, to appreciate what we have and to offer what we can. May we bring our best selves to this conversation and may our contributions, with humility and courage, contribute to the greater healing of the world.” As time progressed, participants added their own opening blessings for the group.

Through the group conversations, participants experienced the power of finding common ground with others who come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They appreciated the opportunity to explore how the three faiths approach philanthropy and to see the commonalities and differences in texts and practice.

Participants approached the region and conflict from the eyes of the other and were enriched by exposure to different perspectives about the conflict. They also discovered that it is possible to move forward with positive, concrete action to support pro-solution strategies and organizations even if there were areas of disagreement. After six group sessions and several smaller, individual meetings, the pilot group successfully allocated the funds they raised to two organizations that help build bridges – Roots and the Parent’s Circle.

Born to a Palestinian mother, it was during one of the sessions that Khaled, a member of the first giving circle, was able to reflect on the past, on his journey, on his mother, on the power of her love and her ability to let go of old wounds. Khaled explained:

“Even though I was raised by a Palestinian mother whose family was evicted from their home at gunpoint, I never knew the Israelis as ‘the enemy.’ That sort of bitterness was not part of the narrative my mother defined her life with. The lack of bitterness was a blind spot for me because I had never seen the opposite. I, of course, knew that people on both sides of the conflict were at odds, often hated each other, but that was an abstract thing, not attached to a story or personality.

“Then, at the Olive Branch Giving Circle, I listened to people I had come to know as friends, sharing their bitterness about a conflict that had touched them directly, or not at all. I realized that the most direct conduit to the conflict in my life, my mother, was totally untouched by bitterness – at least as far as I knew. I realized at that moment what courage it must have taken for her to raise her children not to hate Israel, and to live her life totally unencumbered by the shackles of having been a refugee and a non-citizen for the first third of her life.

“I realized all this as I was sharing it in front of the circle, comprehending the significance of my discoveries in the very act of unearthing them. I found my voice strained with emotion I didn’t even know was there.

“And I realized the power of the gift she had given me: the example of someone who had been touched by a great tragedy deciding not to let it define her. It was the simplest kind of freedom that she passed on to me, a gem she had found in the very same rubble where others could only find ash.”

While the conflict often feels intractable, the giving circle offered a framework to focus on positive efforts being made and then an opportunity to act jointly. The giving circle provided a powerful vehicle to develop interfaith connection, challenge stereotypes, and find a place of shared values from which to engage in concrete action through philanthropy. THIS is the power of coming together that a giving circle can provide.

While there is growing interest in giving circles, they tend to be offered as mechanisms to bring community members together. Amplifier is a great example of a framework to help Jews come together to give jointly. And, there are networks for other communities to gather together, including Muslim, Asian and Latino giving circle frameworks. But, there have been limited, perhaps no other, opportunities to bridge across communities. Not being defined by tragedy is a victory. Not letting tragedy limit our understanding of others is yet another victory. Interfaith giving circles offer a unique way to not define oneself or others by tragedy. It is a way to find those gems where others find only ash.

There were challenges along the way with the Olive Branch pilot – talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hard enough to do among friends – yet this experience demonstrated the power of giving circles to bring people from diverse groups together and create a sense of shared purpose and action.

At this time, the group is planning to reconvene in the fall of 2017 to tackle local issues of social justice in their own backyard.

Shari is a foundation professional with a passion for utilizing philanthropy as a tool for social change. She works and lives in Colorado. In addition to the support of Amplifier, Shari wants to thank Essential Partners for providing training, guidance and leadership to encourage bold conversations during the giving circle and in communities.