What Happened to My Bagel?

bagel w:out holeBy Chaim Katz

Everybody loves bagels! Once found primarily on Jewish tables, they are now one of the most widely popular breads of the Western world. Available in a mouth-watering variety of flavors, they are easily identified by the ever-present hole in the middle. Why bake them with a hole? It was once explained to me that the baking process is enhanced by the hole, allowing an even distribution of heat, thus perfecting the creation of this roll. Removal of the hole may be damaging; it might change the taste or texture.

With apologies to bakers, I once attended a fundraising seminar in which the lecturer (not a baker by trade) used the bagel as a simile for the world of Jewish philanthropy. The Jewish world is a complete circle, with each segment of society having its place in the circle. Remove one part of the circle and it will collapse or, at the minimum, exist in a lopsided state. The example went on about flavors, toppings etc., but the point was made.

Our society is comprised of various classes, each interacting with the other in some fashion. Together, we complete the circle. The premise of philanthropy is the embodiment of that interaction. The degree of an individual’s financial status plays a role in determining where one fits into the circle. Some are on the giving end, while others are on the receiving end. In the middle is a large middle class that bridges all sides, not unlike the hole in the tasty bagel.

On a recent trip to Canada, I met with a long standing donor who represents, what I would deem, the comfortable middle class. He supports various causes that he feels are worthy, and is active in his community, encouraging others to do their part as well. Yet, I must admit that our conversation, while pleasant as always, provided me with some (sorry for the pun) food for thought.

He asked a very pointed question. Isn’t it time that Israeli charities started carrying more of the weight?

His thesis was seemingly quite sound. Western economies, primarily the US and Canada, are far from blossoming. Which international economy is being reported as being strong? Israel! Ask any Canadian about the (de)merits of their dollar and you will hear a litany of Loonie jokes. Their American cousins, while faring somewhat better, are not overly enamored of their dollar either.

The fact is that Israel, as a nation, has prospered over the last quarter of a century. It has much to be proud of, be it in the realms of science, industry, economics, medicine, to name but a few.

For generations, supporting charities in Israel was an intrinsic part of a Jewish household. Even those who had little to spare kept a small charity box on the mantel and added a few pennies. When people came from Israel to raise funds, the doors were open.

But, said my Canadian friend, our local needs are growing. In Toronto, a Jewish community of approximately 200,000, the local Federation campaign has an annual target of approximately $80 million, most of which is only for local commitments. Beyond this are the grassroots efforts that are increasing to help supplement what the mainstream cannot. Hundreds of local Jewish families cannot put food on the table. The cost of Jewish education has soared beyond imagination. Explain to me, said my friend, how I can convince people to continue supporting charities in Israel – the country with the strong, healthy economy – at a time when the Canadian economy is floundering and basic local needs are growing. After all, there was a time when one visited Israel with a suitcase or two overflowing with basic necessities for friends and family. Today, Israelis visit and bring with them those Israeli items that are unavailable in the West.

The question is valid but the thesis is slightly flawed. While there is no doubt about the strength of the Israeli economy (truly a beacon to shine brightly), there has been a price to pay. A country that once had a large middle class (perhaps on the lower end but middle nonetheless) has given way to a larger upper class and, sadly, a burgeoning lower class. Official Israeli government reports reveal an increase in the levels of poverty. Reports from NGO’s reveal a situation that is even worse! More than 1,000,000 children exist below the poverty level. Israeli scientists have made major breakthroughs in treatments, yet much of the technology is exported and unavailable locally, as hospital budgets are inadequate to afford the prices. The list goes on.

The Israeli middle class – that hole in the bagel, the group that bridged both sides – is shrinking. Would that the majority became successful, all would be well. But, the truth is that the numbers at the struggling end are increasing. Walk the streets of downtown Jerusalem and one is astounded by the number of failed small family businesses, once one of the shining lights of the Holy City.

The picture is far from dismal. I believe that Israel is progressing at a miraculous rate and will continue to thrive. But, adjustments are needed. Jews around the world must still help support one another, each of us in his/her own way. True, the needs of Jewish communities globally are changing, and likely will continue to do so, as our global economy changes. But, in the forefront of my mind is that bagel. Even if the hole disappears, it is still a bread roll – equally as tasty, just with a slightly different appearance. And, chances are, if your local bakery that you have supported for years no longer had bagels available, only rolls, you would continue to support the bakery. You would simply buy rolls – slightly different yet equally as satisfying.

Chaim Katz has lived in Israel since 1987. A native of Toronto, Canada, Chaim’s career has spanned three countries and a variety of positions within the private and business sectors. He is the CEO of Ne’eman Foundation Canada and Ne’eman Foundation USA, providing support and guidance to nearly 200 charities throughout Israel.