Why I Stopped Ear-Marking Donations and Give To the General Fund

By Rabbi Adam Cutler

A rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a synagogue banquet hall. To the surprise of none of them, they talk about their congregants.

At a recent pre-Pesach seder for leaders of various faiths, I found myself in deep conversation with an Anglican priest. He was quick to lament the giving patterns of his parishioners. The older people in his congregation were regular donors, who were happy to give to the church’s general fund. Younger donors however were much more episodic and tended to favor specific, tangible causes. Anecdotally, I told him, Jewish giving has been following a similar trend.

We know more generally that for millennials, though they are often quite generous relative to their means, how and where they give is different than their parents and grandparents. Millennials want both narrative and metrics. They demand measurable, concrete results and stories of transformation to accompany them. Millennials want to share involvement in a cause with friends and colleagues, often through social media, and are drawn to sleek websites and online giving. For this younger generation, a compelling and often discrete mission or cause is needed. A charitable ask needs to be value-driven and if it aligns with the potential donor’s personal beliefs then often he or she can be counted on to provide not just a digitally submitted credit card number, but often time, skills, and a network of friends as well.

The Torah tells of the donations collected from the Israelites for the construction of the mishkan, the wilderness Tabernacle. Morning after morning, all whose hearts moved them, brought precious metals, linens, oil, spices and more as a freewill offering. When the chief architects tell Moses that they have all of the materials that they need, Moses declares, ‘stop the donations’.

It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a Jewish professional would proactively announce ‘no more cheques, keep your money’. Yet, not unlike Moses in the wilderness, I know of at least one synagogue who had to inform its congregants that they no longer wanted donations for its refugee assistance fund. The reason? The synagogue reasonably feared that congregants would direct all of their synagogue charitable dollars to help support this specific cause rather than to the synagogue’s general fund. The charitable pie is only so big.

On Shabbat morning, the traditional Ashkenazi liturgy includes a prayer in which God’s blessing is sought for those who give funds to acquire lights, buy wine for Kiddush and Havdalah, provide food for guests, and charity for the poor. In this prayer, we recognize those whose contributions sustain communities, whose tzedakkah is aimed not at a particular, discrete though perhaps solvable problem, but rather at the ongoing maintenance required for communities to sustain themselves and perhaps to grow.

These are not sexy causes. No one gets excited about paying the electricity bill. The narrative of a city’s Jewish community or even an individual synagogue with all of its constituent parts and the breadth of its mandate is never as neat and clean as a narrow cause, as worthy as that cause may be.

Institutions, especially legacy institutions, can do tremendous work. Start-ups may be faster to identify new needs. Small organizations are at times more efficient. But the organizations that carry the communal load year in and year out, providing for communal needs that are ever-present, have infrastructure, staff, expertise, and often a history. The Torah declares, “there will always be poor people.” No charitable project will end poverty. There will always be people in need of comfort. There will always be families with strife and individuals in pain. The need for community togetherness and subsidized Jewish education will never cease. Someone will always require a minyan for kaddish. We need institutions to care for these needs.

Synagogues in particular are especially appropriate for addressing needs far beyond that of their memberships. Were it not for synagogues, potential converts would have no address to be welcomed into the community; the needy wouldn’t receive grocery store gift cards; the Jewish community would not be well-represented at strategically crucial interfaith events or in meetings with politicians on issues of communal concern; and Jews saying kaddish, Jews passing through town, and Jews who simply wake up one morning wanting to pray, wouldn’t have a place to daven. The list goes on.

Yet, institutions must respect individual choices just as individuals can hopefully recognize the imperative of community-wide thinking and giving. Judaism pushes back against the centripetal force of excessive communalism and against the centrifugal force of excessive individualism.

Returning to the Tabernacle, it was, in its own way, a very sexy project, perhaps the kind of project Millennials could get behind. It was a one-time expense and something completely new. “A place for God to live amongst us? Take my acacia wood!” The project was visible, tangible and through the cloud of glory during the day and the column of fire at night its impact could be easily measured. The Tabernacle even had the experiential aspect so desired by Millennials. Those who were capable could help build. As the Torah indicates all whose hearts moved them gave. Those whose hearts weren’t stirred didn’t.

What about operating costs though? Maybe Moses should have collected some extra yarn for when the curtain inevitably rips or gold for when one of the high priests little bells falls off his tunic.

An initial capital project may be necessary and certainly exciting for some, but it is the ongoing operations and upkeep that made the Tabernacle meaningful and useful. As needed as the voluntary donations were, it was the mandatory community half-shekel levy that paid for the daily operations. One could not be an Israelite without giving to the central communal fund. To be part of the communal required an annual donation.

Long gone are the days of the wilderness. So too are the days of the kuppah, in which one communal fund per diaspora town was administered by a select few highly trusted gabba’ai tzedakkah, charity wardens. The charitable landscape of the past has largely been transformed by a modern world of tiny niches.

There are certainly small or new charities that are deserving of our support. Positive change comes from many sources. Of course, larger community institutions must always strive for transparency and efficiency while putting forward a bold value proposition. It is however my firm believe that the holy work needed to sustain Jewish communities is only possible by people who give regularly to a general fund.

There are lot of deserving causes in the world. Providing for foundational organizations – Jewish Federations, Jewish Family and Child, JCCs and synagogues – enables our community to function 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Adam Cutler, an older Millenial, serves as Rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto. He is grateful that his synagogues recognizes the value of clergy who are involved in community-wide endeavors.