Do Your Tzedakah Priorities Reflect Your Values?

People want our tzedakah dollars. We are all deluged by solicitations, whether through phone calls, online requests, mailed letters, or even directly by sh’lichim, supplicants, on our doorsteps. At celebrations, conferences, lectures, and other public events, we are solicited – sometimes almost tackled – by friends, acquaintances, family members, and even people we do not know.

What should we do?

Giving away money responsibly is not so easy. Although there are thousands of books and articles about how to make money and how to invest it, there are few about how to give money away. How do we know where to direct our charitable dollars, our tzedakah? How should we determine which of the many institutions, agencies, projects, and organizations that solicit us are worthy of our contributions, large or small?

We can begin this process by examining our values and determining our vision of the ideal world. What are we passionate about? What are our cherished beliefs and hopes? We should then make our tzedakah decisions based on these values and beliefs. We all give tzedakah both because we want to and because we are obligated to give. No matter how much or how little we have, Jewish law dictates that we give 10 percent of our income as ma’aser, a tithe. But we have the freedom to choose the recipients of our tzedakah.

My own values involve maximizing the potential of Jewish girls and women. I believe that women and girls should be afforded increased opportunities to engage in Jewish ritual, to have equal access to leadership positions, and to have unlimited opportunities to acquire knowledge. The following three situations exemplify my own decision-making process.

  1. A fundraiser for a large and old Jewish organization asked me for a contribution. Knowing there were no women officers in this organization, I asked him why this was the case. He answered that when the organization was formed more than 100 years ago, it was written into its constitution that women were not allowed to serve as officers. I responded that the Constitution of the United States allowed slavery and denied women the vote, but that we have since amended it. So, why not amend his organization’s constitution? He replied that women could not serve as officers for halakhic reasons, and one does not change halakha. To this I responded as follows: There are differing halakhic opinions on the issue of women serving as officers. Any organization that denies itself the wisdom of 51 percent of the population cannot be as effective an organization as it could be and did not warrant my contribution. But I urged him to solicit me again should the organization revise its policy.
  2. A fundraiser called me to contribute to a Jewish high school. I asked to see its curriculum, and on reviewing it, I noticed that, although boys studied Talmud, the girls did not. When I questioned this, the fundraiser replied that only males have the capacity to learn Talmud. As there was no curricular change in the offing, I told this fundraiser I could not contribute to the school, but I encouraged him to call me again should the school decide to teach Talmud to its female students. 
  3. A fundraiser asked me to sponsor a number of Hebrew letters – at $18 per letter – being written by a sofer, a scribe, into a Torah scroll. I asked the solicitor if, after the Torah scroll was written, girls and women would be permitted to read from it. He said no. I responded that I could not give money to this project. I explained why and suggested that he call me should he ever be involved in fundraising for a Torah scroll that would be read by girls and women as well.

Passionate about both my feminism and my adherence to Jewish law, I did not feel able to give money to these three organizations. My passions, beliefs, values, and goals involve the empowerment of women and girls in all spheres of life – in their families, workplaces, schools, synagogues, and communities. Because I want my tzedakah to reflect and buttress these values, I choose to support those organizations, institutions, projects, and programs that maximize the potential of Jewish girls and women.

Researching the Organizations That Solicit You

To make these tzedakah decisions, I ask a lot of questions. For example, I explore whether women are represented fairly on both the board and in management and staff positions. I ask for the organization’s letterhead that lists officers, board members, and staff so I can get a sense of women’s representation in the organization.

When considering a donation to a JCC or a Y, I want to know if there are equal resources, time, and access to athletic facilities and team sports for male and female members. For example, if there is a basketball team for boys, is there one for girls as well? Is the women’s locker room the same quality as the men’s? I also look at programming and at how well it targets or includes girls and women.

Regarding personnel issues, I look at how liberal the institution’s maternity leave policy is and whether there are opportunities for flex-time and part-time work. Are women afforded salaries, benefits, and advancement possibilities commensurate with those of men? Where the IRS permits, do women receive parsonage benefits? Is there a written policy on sexual harassment?

READ: Once A Dream, Paid Parental Leave Now A Reality at 100 Jewish Groups — And Counting

In regard to schools, it is not enough for me to know that the students are receiving a Jewish education. I want to know who the teachers are and what exactly they are teaching. Are there good and appropriate role models for girls? Is the curriculum a gender-sensitive one? I review the materials the organization uses in its marketing. Do the images in its publications and online material reinforce stereotypes, such as males as active participants and females as observers – if women are even portrayed at all? Is the language used in the materials inclusive of girls and women? For example, does a brochure use only the pronoun “he,” rather than alternating “he” and “she” or using “she or he?”

The Decision NOT to Give

If I decide not to give based upon a principled reason, I articulate the reason so that the institution will not interpret my refusal to contribute as being due simply to a lack of funds. And when I do give a contribution, I tell the fundraiser why I decided to give. By telling the laypeople and professionals who solicit our tzedakah exactly why we are giving – or not giving – we have an opportunity to possibly bring about change. When we decide to deny a gift and we explain the reasons why, we may not change anything. But by the time the fifth, or fifteenth, or twenty-fifth person declines to give a contribution for the same reason – for example, the organization’s refusal to allow a woman to serve as president –the message will sink in, and the organization may well begin taking a good, hard look at itself and its future survival.

And one need not be a major donor to make a difference.

When any potential donor tells a solicitor she cannot give because of reason a, b, or c, the solicitor does not know how much revenue was potentially lost. Maybe it was a lot of money; maybe a little money. Forward-looking development staff view the donor-donee relationship as a potentially long-term one in which donors are cultivated and encouraged to give larger amounts over time. But if a possible donor says no at the outset, there will no relationship to develop. One person can make a difference. It is incorrect to think that a small donation will not make a difference: every donation makes a difference. And even more effective is having partners in our tzedakah – bringing together friends and family in supporting a cause. There are limitless opportunities to use our voices and our money.

Recently, one of the synagogues I belong to asked me to make a contribution to its adult education program. I agreed to do so, but said I would support only women teachers (only male teachers had been hired thus far for the year). This same synagogue asked me to fund a Shabbat Scholar-In-Residence program. I responded that I would be happy to support women scholars. Here, too, only men had been scheduled to be the Shabbat scholars. After much discussion, both goals were achieved, and the synagogue hired women teachers and scholars, accomplishments that benefited all the congregants and clergy.

Situations do arise, however, that can sorely test our determination to give according to our beliefs. What if a close friend or family member is being honored at a dinner given by an organization whose mission and programming we are uncomfortable with – or which are outright antithetical to our tzedakah desires? What if a close friend or family member asks us to donate to a cause dear to her heart, but far from ours? What if we “owe” someone, and that someone asks us to give to a boys’ yeshiva where the rabbis are teaching its students that it is forbidden for girls to study Talmud?

When such situations occur, I discuss my feeling of discomfort with the friend or family member, and I propose giving the same amount I would have given, but to another organization of her or his choosing that is aligned more closely with my values. But sometimes – though we hope not too often! – we must stray a bit from our tzedakah plan for the sake of a valued relationship. Luckily, though, there are plentiful opportunities for careful, considered strategic giving, whether to schools, synagogues, Jewish community centers, workplaces, advocacy organizations, cultural institutions, or social service projects. And with these opportunities for giving come possibilities for making a difference–and making things different!

Every so often, take a look at your monthly credit card bill and your checkbook entries to review who were the beneficiaries of your tzedakah. Think about these recipients. Do they represent what you believe in? By striving to align our tzedakah with our values and beliefs, we move toward a life of harmony, fulfillment, and satisfaction. The way we give our tzedakah is part and parcel of the way we live our life as Jews. We can both change others and change ourselves by speaking up and anteing up. Giving to what we believe in helps us live consistent and satisfying lives, lives that are true to ourselves. For me, this means I can speak, give, and live truly as an Orthodox feminist Jew.

Continue this conversation on JOFA’s upcoming webinar, “Women and Philanthropy.” Register now!

This article was originally printed in the 2007 JOFA Journal.

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