Funding Innovation is Nice. Now Let’s Redistribute Wealth.

It is wonderful that we in the Jewish community are funding innovative initiatives. There are so many interesting ideas around engaging Jews and reinventing Judaism that are worthy of being supported and funded. And funding innovation will ensure that good and new thinking continues to emerge and take root in the Jewish world.

At the same time, however, we should also be examining the big picture across the Jewish world, and being sure that everyone is having their needs met.

Income inequality is becoming an important topic of our political culture, as we examine a system that creates and supports a disparity between the haves and have-nots, between those at the top (“the 1%”) and everyone else. It is an issue of economic justice, something that our Torah implores us to pursue. We need only look at last week’s Torah portion, B’har, to see that this is an important Jewish value.

As we confront economic inequality in our general society, we need to examine how the Jewish community supports inequality, not among individuals, but among Jewish communities. Our current system of institutional funding is one in which different organizations need to compete for resources, and are therefore unable to serve all Jews equally.

Take congregations, for example. Congregations are primarily self-funded, in that the majority of a congregation’s income comes from the members who belong to that congregation. Congregations that are larger and/or have wealthier members will have more resources than those that do not. Those with more resources can then do more, have more access to rabbis, educators, speakers, musicians, books, movies, etc. Those congregations without the same financial resources cannot provide the same Jewish resources. [Add to this geography: Congregations outside the centers of Jewish life have additional costs in accessing resources in paying travel fees, etc.]

Thus financial inequality threatens to create different classes of Jews. We are currently not only nurturing inequality among congregations in terms of resources, were are nurturing inequality among Jews in terms of access to Judaism.

The congregation I serve is not tremendously large nor wealthy, and is outside the centers of Jewish life. But are the Jews I serve not worthy to hear from top scholars, great speakers, leading musicians? I think so, but funding is always challenge. I often wonder what I would do with an additional $10,000 or $20,000 in our budget. We can hire musicians to play music during services. We can bring in a leading scholar for a weekend. We can cater Shabbat dinners.

Is this “innovative”? For many, no. But for me, yes. In looking across the spectrum of congregational life, we need to remember that one rabbi’s standard is another rabbi’s innovation.

As a Jewish community, we should be asking what are the basic needs of Jews, and how can we meet them. How can we provide education and experiences to all Jews?  How can we democratize access to all the Jewish world has to offer, rather than leave it up to individuals and individual congregations to be on their own, compete for resources, and reward the haves?

I’m glad that the Rabbis Without Borders network has set up the Rabbinic Service Corps to facilitate members of the network serving smaller Jewish communities who do not have regular access to rabbinic services. It is this type of thinking that should be replicated. How can we as a Jewish community support all those who wish to be a part of it, rather than those who are well-resourced?

Soon we will celebrate Shavuot, when we celebrate the story of Sinai from the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian slavery, traveled to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, which would become their new sacred text and civil constitution. In the story of Sinai, it is told that all the Israelites gathered around the mountain, all shared the same experience, all received the same Torah. Not just those who had big benefactors, not just those who had large endowments, not just those who have innovation grants.

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