Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

Tis 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 private donations.

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 does.

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 and Israel.

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 given grudgingly.
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 each other.
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.