Nurturing Jewish Philanthropy

Robert Israel

Bernard L. Madoff sits behind bars for the rest of his life, guilty of swindling millions of dollars from unsuspecting investors in a Ponzi scheme he masterminded. In the fall of 2011, his wife appeared on the nationally televised program 60 Minutes and announced she was suing him for divorce. On that same program, his surviving son denounced him. (Madoff's other son committed suicide in the aftermath of his schemes.) The ensuing detritus from the Madoff affair is nothing less than tragic, for all the victims, including those in Madoff's own family.

A period of soul-searching followed, particularly among his Jewish victims, who asked themselves how they could have been conned by a fellow Jew who smiled in their faces and promised them the moon, even as he was liquidating their bank accounts.

Yeshiva University in New York City is a case in point. Once so enamored of Madoff that it lauded him with an honorary degree, the school lost more than $110 million in investments because of Madoff's misdeeds. When news broke that the university had been cheated, Rabbi Richard M. Joel, president of Yeshiva, wrote, in a letter to students: "We all should use these times to reflect on our blessings but also to reflect on our responsibilities. ... The times are appropriate for us to focus on our core values, to practice and refine them and to share them with the world."

What exactly are those core values?

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a longtime Talmud professor at Yeshiva, offered some insight into how this reclamation might proceed when he urged his fellow Jews to turn to the tenets of Judaism for answers.

"In elevating to a level of demi-worship people with big bucks," Rabbi Blech said, referring to Madoff, "we have been destroying the values of our future generation. We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring."

When Jews gather each Passover, they recount the story of their years of imprisonment as slaves in Egypt and are reminded how they once succumbed to idol worship before Moses admonished them in Sinai. The "core values" Rabbi Joel alluded to are those hard-learned lessons that predate and include those years of slavery, exodus, and ultimate liberation, and the devotion of adhering to laws that have guided Jews morally ever since.

Rabbis Joel and Blech both referred to a path that leads to righteousness, explicitly spelled out in the Jewish commandment of tzedakah, derived from the Hebrew word tzedek, or justice. Tzedakah involves the doing of just deeds for the sake of community.

One way of instilling "core values" in the wake of the Madoff affair is to encourage a practice of tzedakah that must once again become a mainstay of Jewish life, namely, the act of purposefully setting aside funds to be donated to worthy causes.

As a youngster growing up in an Orthodox Jewish, mostly immigrant community in South Providence, Rhode Island, I learned by example how tzedakah was practiced on a daily basis. My parents insisted that we deposit coins in a canister, or pushke, which, like the mezuzah, contains the printed verses from Deuteronomy. The mezuzah is affixed to the right of the front door of Jewish homes to consecrate them. The pushke canister sits in a prominent place in the living room. Both these items remind Jews of their religious identity and their core values of piety, discipline, and responsibility for community welfare.

The pushke took on greater meaning in my family when we learned that several youngsters living nearby were afflicted with polio. When we children were financially rewarded for running errands or finishing household chores, we were asked to contribute a portion of our earnings to the pushke. These funds were later given to the March of Dimes, to support research in infantile paralysis. Not only did my family contribute to Jewish causes, but we felt compelled to give to those organizations whose missions were identified as crucial.

Some years later, while attending the Precious Legacy exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution, I came upon a display of pushkes at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. These and other household items, like Kiddush cups and Sabbath candelabra, once belonged to European Jewish families. The Nazis looted their homes and stored these confiscated items in vast warehouses in Prague, where they were meticulously indexed by Jewish slave archivists, intended for exhibition in Nazi museums after the war as relics of a vanished race. Only in the aftermath of World War II were the Nazis' criminal acts of plundering and later storing these possessions in massive warehouses revealed to the public.

One particular silver and brass alms box on display at the Precious Legacy exhibition that has haunted me ever since was fashioned in the form of an outstretched hand. I remember standing before it at the Wadsworth, transfixed. I had to suppress the urge to reach out to grasp it, to interlock my fingers in its fingers, as if it were the outstretched hand of a friend. I noticed a small slit in the palm for depositing coins. Written below the palm was a Hebrew inscription, from Proverbs 21:14: "A gift in secret pacifies anger."

The pushke remains to this day a symbolic reminder of the commandment to be philanthropic. But therein lies the problem. If one visits Jewish homes in the United States today, in the twenty-first century, one will likely discover that very few have pushke canisters in their living rooms or, for that matter, mezuzahs affixed to the doorposts. Just as it is now possible for Jews to live in America without adhering to many other traditional Jewish practices and rituals, the basic lesson of charitable giving, reinforced throughout the generations, in many cases has been lost.

Research published by the late Gary A. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco affirms that this loss of identity has directly manifested itself in decreased giving to Jewish philanthropy. Tobin and his colleagues discovered that the vast majority of Jews give only 2 percent or less of their annual income to Jewish philanthropy, with a sizable proportion giving less than 1 percent. And volunteerism does not necessarily guarantee donation of money for Jewish causes.

Tobin's research also revealed that Jews who are active in Jewish organizations that strengthen their sense of identity are more likely to contribute philanthropically. He emphasized the importance of training young professionals who are pursuing careers in organizations dependent on philanthropy to become more adept at nurturing in others those practices that had once been an organic response to more traditional religious and cultural customs and rituals, like the pushke. Tobin stressed that today's Jewish fundraisers must strengthen their own Jewish knowledge and commitment before attempting to foster it in others, especially with regard to the commandment of tzedakah.

Sometimes it takes a crisis like the Madoff affair to revive those instincts. Take the story of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, and Boston University religion professor, who best exemplifies Rabbi Blech's definition of a hero for our times. Wiesel's charity, Foundation for Humanity, suffered what Wiesel termed "a personal tragedy" when the funds he invested—including his personal finances—were wiped out by Madoff's criminal schemes.

Wiesel told The New York Times that after news of his losses spread, "unsolicited, hundreds of people, literally, hundreds of people we have never known sent us money through the internet, $5, $18, $100, one even $1,000."

While this heartwarming outpouring of support doesn't eradicate the wrongdoing Madoff perpetrated—"I would simply call him thief, scoundrel, criminal," Wiesel said, telling the Times he will never forgive Madoff for his transgressions—it does speak of the special spark that is ignited in individuals to rally in support of those in need. It serves as an antidote to the evil unleashed by Madoff's selfish criminal acts.

There is still a long way to go before the Jewish community achieves a widespread return to a time-honored commitment to philanthropy, which, as Gary Tobin once wrote, "is a commandment, a must, not a should," that begins at home and is purposefully passed on through the ages. That effort will take careful nurturance to succeed in perpetuity. If the Madoff scandal can be looked upon as a wake-up call that spurs not only soul-searching but an urgency to return to that philanthropic commitment, then one day we may indeed see it take root and spread, not only among Jews, but throughout the community at large.

The lesson to be learned from all this pain and loss is that the path to righteousness which ancient Hebrew scribes envisioned is achieved when we collectively recognize our daily responsibility to perform unheralded acts of generosity that demonstrate a commitment to true caring for each other's well-being.


Robert Israel is a contributing writer to religionandpolitics.org and several other print and online publications. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj