This piece originally appeared on March 1, 2012 in EJewishPhilanthropy at www.ejewishphilanthropy.com. Reposted here with permission of the author.
“Anything can be Jewish giving.” This comment caught my eye as I thumbed through feedback forms from teen members of Rose Youth Foundation following a recent meeting. It gave me pause. Actually, it set off my internal alarm bell.
Exploring what it means to give Jewishly is a core component of Rose Youth Foundation. Each year, 23 teenaged participants in the program are charged with the responsibility of granting $60,000 to help solve community problems they identify in Greater Denver and Boulder. While the grantmaking process and funding decisions are entirely in the hands of the teens, there are a couple of rules.
First, they must grant all of the money. Second, their grantmaking must support nonprofits serving Greater Denver and Boulder. Finally, they have to make grants that are primarily Jewish in nature – and in order to do so, the 16-, 17-, and 18-year old participants must grapple with the question, “What is Jewish philanthropy?”
The answer or answers determine the impact of the group’s grantmaking, but the process of answering the question provides a unique opportunity to explore the intersections of Jewish and personal values, community need and communal responsibility, thousand-year-old teachings and contemporary issues.
By giving teens the freedom to define Jewish philanthropy for themselves, on their own terms, we seek to send the message that there are no right or wrong answers and that discussing and deeply understanding the question is more important than arriving at any one particular answer. Yet I worried that this member’s conclusion that “anything can be Jewish giving” meant that we were somehow missing the mark and opening the door to facile conclusions. Was this an unconsidered answer? Or a thoughtful and powerful one?
In a recent eJewish Philanthropy piece, Richard Marker described a tension between philanthropic support for the universal, the world of issues and needs beyond the Jewish community, and for the particular, the smaller world of issues and needs within Jewish communities. He concluded that both are essential.
Year after year, teens who take part in Rose Youth Foundation express this same conclusion in their grantmaking, choosing to fund both the universal and the particular.
To say that “anything can be Jewish giving” is an embrace of the universal, but not necessarily a denial of the particular. The Jewish tradition has a lot to say about philanthropy. A wide range of teachings outline our responsibilities to our families, our communities, humanity and the world we inhabit. Other texts provide direction for how and how much we should give. Judaism gives us so many directions about where, how and to whom we give, that we can see our Jewish responsibility to repair the world everywhere we see need.
That our youngest philanthropists, a generation already marked by their commitment to service and social justice, would view any giving they do, any service they engage in – and we know it’s a lot – as Jewish philanthropy, means that Judaism is infusing their lives in a profound and all-encompassing way. It is not just a piece of their identity they dip in and out of depending on where they are, who they are with and what they are doing.
But if “anything can be Jewish giving,” then maybe there is no such thing as Jewish philanthropy. It is easy to imagine the particular quickly becoming subsumed by the universal. Perhaps, but consider these examples of how Rose Youth Foundation members have applied Jewish teachings to make grants that are “primarily Jewish” over the last 11 years:
- Guided by the responsibility to “ … open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, to your needy, in your land,” (Deuteronomy 15:11) they have chosen to fund support and services for people who are homeless.
- Because of our history of displacement and persecution, and the directive that “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt,” (Leviticus: 19:34) they have funded programs that help refugees resettled in Colorado adapt to their new communities.
- Inspired by Maimonides’ teaching that the highest level of tzedakah is to aid someone in becoming self-sufficient, they have supported education reform efforts, specifically those that empower students to advocate for educational improvements and change in their own schools.
And at the same time, every year for the past 11 years, they have embraced the particular, alongside these universal causes. Every single group of Rose Youth Foundation members has set as a grant priority support for compelling programs that help Jewish teenagers connect to and find meaning in Jewish life. In fact, it is the only funding priority that has been consistent over the life of the program.
Truth be told, there are always young people in the group who ask, “How can we fund programs for Jewish teens when there are people sleeping on the street and it is our responsibility, as Jews, to support those with the greatest needs in our community?” But there are always others who answer, “Funding programs to connect people to Judaism will help ensure there are always people who, like us, feel a responsibility to care for those who have the greatest needs.”
From the teen members of Rose Youth Foundation, I have learned not just that the universal and the particular are both essential components of Jewish philanthropy, I have also learned that considering them in opposition to one another – as two separate choices – creates a false dichotomy.
They are two sides of the Jewish philanthropy coin, or two points on a continuous feedback loop.
Supporting the explicitly Jewish cause of creating compelling pathways to Jewish life leads to more people serving as Jewish champions of universal needs and as advocates for Jewish engagement too. At the same time, funding to address universal needs through a lens of Jewish values and tradition can serve as a powerful, illuminating and reinforcing expression of one’s Judaism.