the Season For Jewish Giving
Item: A mausoleum
costing up to $1 million is being built
around the tomb of a revered 19th century
rabbi in Bratislava with the help of
Item: The UJA-Federation
of New York made a $250,000 grant to
provide food and other humanitarian aid
to more than 16,000 Falash Mura in Ethiopia.
Does anyone else find
something incongruous about the fact
that $1 million is being spent to build
a tomb for a dead rabbi and a quarter
of that amount is being spent to feed
more than 16,000 men, women and children?
Whenever you look at
charitable giving, such incongruities
can be found. The good news is that Jews
are very philanthropic. Still, as any
development officer will tell you, many
Jews give nothing to charity, or give
significantly below their means. Jewish
tradition calls for 10% of one’s income
to go toward charity, but how many people
are willing to make that large a sacrifice?
As someone who runs
a small nonprofit organization, I know
how difficult it is to find support for
a good cause. Everywhere you look, there
are wealthy Jews who, it would seem,
surely could afford to send a few shekels.
Of course, every charity in America sees
the same people as prospects and inundate
them with requests.
No matter how much money
someone has, or how charitable they are,
they inevitably have their own interests.
Someone may give away millions, but still
focus on a narrow area of giving, such
as medical research or wildlife preservation.
Relatively few people seem to give money
to a wide variety of causes. To get a
contribution, you have to find out what
the donor feels passionately about and,
all too often, it’s not what your charity
My experience with foundations
has been equally interesting and frustrating.
You read their guidelines, and the project
you propose seems appropriate, but it
is still rejected. Sometimes it’s a case
of there being too many good proposals
and not enough money, but often the foundation’s
interests are limited to a geographical
area or a topic or the trustees simply
won’t consider unsolicited proposals.
The “who you know factor”
is always important in charitable giving.
People are more comfortable sending money
to a cause when they are familiar with
the people involved, or when they are
asked by friends and colleagues. A lot
of wealthy individuals give to each other’s
causes because that’s the way that social
stratum operates — you scratch my back,
or give to my charity....
Covet is also an issue.
Many people give without any expectation
of anything in return. Some people, however,
want recognition for their generosity
— names on buildings, plaques and the
rest. Walking around Jerusalem, with
all its monuments to philanthropists,
I sometimes wonder if the day is far
off when you can buy your own stones
in the Western Wall. Charities are generally
happy to give people credit for their
gifts and there’s certainly nothing wrong
with acknowledging generosity.
One dilemma for donors
is whether to give to Jewish and/or non-Jewish
causes. Giving to charities for the blind,
AIDS, the homeless, saving the whales
or any other general cause is fine, but
those causes will receive support from
the general population. Generally speaking,
only Jews are going to give to specifically
Jewish causes, such as synagogues, homes
for the Jewish elderly, Holocaust education
As the year draws to
an end and many of us make our last minute
contributions, it is also worth considering
the charitable guidelines set out by
Maimonides, who said there are eight
levels of charity, each higher than the
other. In ascending order, they are:
8. When donations are
7. When one gives less than he should,
but does so cheerfully.
6. When one gives directly to the poor
upon being asked.
5. When one gives directly to the poor
without being asked.
4. Donations when the recipient is aware
of the donor's identity, but the donor
still doesn't know the specific identity
of the recipient.
3. Donations when the donor is aware
to whom the charity is being given, but
the recipient is unaware of the source.
2. Giving assistance in such a way that
the giver and recipient are unknown to
1. The highest form of charity is to
help sustain a person before they become
impoverished by offering a substantial
gift in a dignified manner, or by extending
a suitable loan, or by helping them find
employment or establish themselves in
business so as to make it unnecessary
for them to become dependent on others.