Jewish Philanthropy

What are the tough questions Jewish philanthropists must ask themselves? And what should the Jewish community ask of them?


The following article addresses the intersection of Jewish philanthropy and Jewish continuity. It  is reprinted with permission from the October 2001 issue of  Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility

For three millennia, Jewish charitable giving has been both guided and defined by a series of basic principles and motivations. The philanthropist was guided by the biblical injunctions of tzedakah, the pursuit of justice or righteousness, and tikkun olam, the oft‑cited mandate to repair the world. Jews were equally guided by the obligatory mitzvot of ma’aser ani and peah, the tithing and leaving for the poor from one’s farm yields and, by extension, income. 

Throughout the ages, philanthropists–like all members of the Jewish community–were held accountable to the kehillah, the Jewish communal infrastructure. Even in the post‑war American Jewish community, where large‑scale assimilation occurred, there remained until relatively recently significant barriers to large‑scale charitable giving outside the community. Now, because we give wherever we choose, we are rethinking our philanthropic priorities. Our recent focus on separateness and uniqueness is fading.

contemporary jewish philanthropy

Jewish philanthropists–including the so‑called “mega‑donors”–are today engaging in personal dialogue about how they define the communities to which they belong and how they are obligated to these communities. They are asking themselves how to create personal philanthropic strategies that reflect their sense of obligation and community. These fundamental choices about community and obligation are debated not only by the philanthropist but also by Jewish communal leaders who critique how donors give away their money.

Philanthropists are asking themselves: How do I define my community? Does community include my family, neighborhood, or synagogue? The country where I live? World Jewry? Do I see myself as a global citizen?

Then they ask: What is my obligation to these communities? Is my obligaton defined by traditional Jewish sources and guidance? Is it informed by contemporary western values and my understanding of the social contract that binds our nation and our political values? Do I have an obligation to those who are responsible for my wealth?

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Jeremy Burton is chief of staff at Jewish Funds for Justice. He previously served as Executive Director of Amos: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice and Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Funders Network.

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