Thoughts on Charity
From Aryeh Rubin, Director, Targum Shlishi
January 27, 2013
Dear Friends and Colleagues:
Greetings and best wishes. Over the years I have given a great deal of thought to the nature and scope of charitable giving, and I know the same is true for many of you. I synthesized much of my thinking into an opinion piece published by the JTA on December 23,“Op-Ed: How to choose when giving tzedakah.Due to space constraints, some content was cut. Below, I have pasted in the original article.
Additionally, as I worked on the piece, I discarded several salient points. Chief among them is that when Targum Shlishi evaluates applicants, we tend not to fund organizations with development directors, our rationale being that those organizations are already well on the road. That said, we appreciate the critical importance of the role of development directors for Jewish organizations, who are tasked with persuading the Jewish population to give more than the current six percent of its charitable dollars to Jewish causes.
We publicize Targum Shlishi’s giving through regular e-mails. On several occasions, people have been so struck by a description a project we support that they send us donations. While we are flattered by the gesture, as a philanthropy, we don’t accept donations.
As always, comments are welcome. Please reply to email@example.com.
Charity: Where, What, How, Why?
Passing up the Establishment, Supporting the Innovators
By Aryeh Rubin
Anyone who has made a commitment to offer financial support to Jewish causes has likely grappled with the questions of where to give, what to give, how to give, and, of course, the fundamental issue of why she or he is giving. Why grappled? Because there are so very many worthy causes, and the need exceeds the resources. In our difficult economic times, these questions are called into ever-greater relief. For a small philanthropy such as Targum Shlishi and its affiliated trusts, funds, and personal giving, these issues have assumed an urgency of late as we are faced with an increasing number and expanding nature of inquiries for funding. On a regular basis, people call asking for personal help to feed their families or pay their mortgages. At the same time, some organizations are threatened with closure and Israel is facing an existential threat that has potentially devastating repercussions for the Jewish world as a whole. How, then, do we decide where we should allocate limited funds when most inquiries we receive are for worthy and often pressing causes?
It helps to go back to the basics, to consider the very nature of tzedakah. What is charity? We know that feeding the hungry and housing the poor are considered by almost everyone to be charity. But is it charity to advocate for and support radical changes in Jewish education? Is it charity to support the liberation of Israeli women seeking divorce who are faced with an oppressive rabbinical system? Is it charity to support an advocacy organization on behalf of Israel, seeking justice for Nazi war crimes, or a biography of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook? In the end, shouldn’t healing the sick have priority over improving the quality of life for young families in Jerusalem? At Targum Shlishi, we believe that traditional notions of charity are valid and important, but that as a small philanthropy with limited resources, we can be of more use taking a different tack. (While we have been involved in more than 500 projects, our grants are modest. Our total giving amounts to a rounding error of some of the big players; our typical grant is in the range of $5,000 to $20,000.)
What are our criteria for allocating resources? A child in need of an extensive operation or a website on Jewish children’s books? A day school that can’t pay its teachers or research that will potentially help hundreds of educators do a better job? A family waiting room at a Jerusalem hospital or an online database of Orthodox mental health professionals? These are questions that those fortunate enough to be able to allocate tzedakah think and often agonize about. In the end, it’s each according to his/her conscience. But then, how do we decide?
A step back can help. Evaluate the cause and whether it has other potential donors. Estimate its long-term impact. Will it patch a hole or point the way toward meaningful, long-term solutions? Can the solutions be replicated in other communities?
Also consider not only which causes to support, but also how to give, how to position oneself. For its first ten years, from 1992–2002, Targum Shlishi gave very quietly – not entirely anonymously, but nearly so. Then, in 2002, we decided to go public. In so doing, in cultivating a higher profile, in establishing a voice, we know that we descended at least one rung on the ladder of Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity. We took this step quite deliberately and for several reasons: We felt the type of venture philanthropy we were pursuing was important and innovative, and we were motivated to share our work and inspire others to take similar actions; we wanted to advocate for some of our grantees by publicizing their work and encouraging additional support; and we hoped to partner with other philanthropies on certain causes.
I believe that throughout Jewish history there have been enlightened individuals, most often behind the scenes, who helped the Jewish people move forward, whether it be away from slavery, or out of the ghetto, or toward more equality in the treatment of women, or in prevailing upon the rabbis to ease up on sometimes restrictive laws. In cahoots with select members of the clergy and the academies of learning, these individuals used their knowledge, money, and/or their power to help our people evolve. The people who supported the first Bais Yaakov, the first Jewish school for girls, established after World War I, had to decide whether, for example, to establish an orphanage in Lodz or set up a revolutionary new concept in Jewish education. Just imagine where we would be today if they took the traditional route and opted for the orphanage. The bottom line? Funding for concepts and the improvement of our lot serves as sacred a purpose as does helping the unfortunate among us.
Then the question begs, how do we arrive at an allocation? How does one justify giving x dollars to a food program in Jerusalem and twenty or even fifty times that amount to finding the last of the Nazi murderers, or to a movement that encourages a partisan agenda? At Targum Shlishi, we use several criteria to evaluate proposals. We consider not only the proposal itself, but also how many people and foundations may support it – and how sellable it is. Will there be an annual dinner with a man or woman of the year who will draw a crowd? Is it palatable to the masses? If so, that gets either none or a minimal amount of our resources. On the other hand, an organization or an idea that has wide-reaching implications if it’s successful, but may not be conventional or sexy enough to attract the masses, gets a bigger slice of our pie.
We aim to give creatively to organizations that are making a difference and for which our modest help is a major boost. While we allocate a small percentage of our distributions to traditional charities, the better part of our focus – and all of our heart – is on innovative initiatives that have the potential to positively change the status quo. We tend not to fund the groups we grew up with, in part because of the size and budgets of long-standing, well-funded Jewish organizations; we would not have a meaningful impact there. This is not to take away from the importance of some of the majors. Despite certain of them being bloated and bureaucratic, and some even having outlived their usefulness, if they didn’t exist, our resources would have to go to feed the hungry and run the senior citizen homes – there would not be a choice to make.
And what of not giving? Here, too, we have carefully considered our parameters. We don’t give in instances where able-bodied people are not working to earn their daily bread. We don’t give to any organization whose leadership and membership do not respect all of humankind, nor do we give to those who do not fully subscribe to ahavat Yisrael, who are not inclusive of all types of Jews and all branches of Judaism. And finally, we do not give to organizations that don’t fully and wholeheartedly realize, appreciate, and embrace the centrality of Israel.
Thus, our goal: support ideas, organizations, individuals who can make a difference. Don’t get stuck on the mundane. Take risks and midwife that nitzutz, that spark. If we are lucky we will help start a revolution in a particular area that needs it, but even if we’re not, and the promise of a project or organization isn’t realized, and all it does is get the conversation going, the mission is half accomplished.
We are living in a unique time in the history of the Jewish people. We have the most prosperity, the most freedom, and the most power that we have had in 2,000 years. Yet at the same time, we are at a most dangerous time; our ideological enemies wish to physically destroy us, and the culture demon – the attraction of secular society – is leading a goodly number of us to assimilation and, more often than not, to a symptom that is deadly to us as a people, to apathy. We need to address the problems we face, and we need to acknowledge that traditional approaches to the challenges facing the Jewish world have not been effective. We need to explore new ideas.
I would recommend that we all reassess our giving, and allocate a portion of our tzedakah to those creative individuals and organizations that are looking for new approaches. If we don’t rock the boat and encourage our leadership to take us in a new direction, the boat, I am afraid, will find itself in dangerous waters. We at Targum Shlishi are advocating, seeking out, supporting, and promoting navigational change. There’s still time.