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How to Prioritize Your Giving

The following is an article that Rabbi Sandi Intraub, of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, MA, wrote for her synagogue this past Yom Kippur. It’s a fantastic response to the time-old question, “How do I prioritize my giving?”

Within the past month, I have received envelopes requesting donations from the following organizations: American Jewish World Service, Brandeis University (my alma mater), WBUR, MAZON, The Human Rights Campaign, and the American Cancer Society. How should I choose which organization I support and how much to give? 

During my Yom Kippur Study Hour, as I encouraged us to learn about hunger in Africa, many of you asked questions similar to, “how can we support people suffering in Africa when there are people around the corner in Belmont who need our help?” As we watch the international news, or walk through the center of town, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of need – should we give aid to people who live close by or across the ocean, people who are hungry or those who face illness, organizations that support the environment or the arts? Should we give to those with immediate needs or work toward long-term sustainable solutions?  How can we ensure that the money we do give is used most effectively and responsibly?  What wisdom does Judaism offer about how we should prioritize our giving?

In the Babylonian Talmud, redacted around 500CE, Rav Yosef responds to the teaching in Exodus that reads, “If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them” (Exodus 22:24).  He explains that, “if the choice lies between a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich, the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town, the poor of your own town have prior rights (Bava Metzia 71a, Soncino translation).  Rav Yosef writes during a time when Jews lived in their own towns, apart from everyone else, and he clearly believes that we should help our own first, before we help others. I think that it is safe to say that Rav Yosef probably was not intimately connected to anyone beyond his town’s borders.

However, our world is different today.  The person who picked the bananas we eat or the coffee beans used to make this morning’s coffee may live on another continent but is intimately connected to our lives. In addition, our trade and international aid policies directly affect individuals in other countries. 

This changes our reality, and I believe must change the way we prioritize our giving.  We cannot ignore those in our community who are in need of help, but we cannot ignore those in other countries either.  The Hatam Sofer, a 19th Century Hungarian Rabbi, offers a different perspective to that of Rav Yosef, “If there is a poor person within your gates,” Sifre (collection of legal midrash on the book of Deuteronomy) expounds this verse saying, “When one is starving, the one who is starving takes precedence” and then expounds, “The poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.” That is to say—this applies if both poor people need food or clothing. However, if the poor of your city have what they need to live, but just don’t have any extra money [and the poor of the other city don’t have food or clothing], then the poor of the other city take precedence over the poor of your city, for the neediest takes precedence (Hatam Sofer, 2:231, Translation by Rabbi Jill Jacobs).

The Hatam Sofer challenges us to decide who are the “neediest,” though it may not always be clear just who those people are.  There are millions of people in need just beyond our doorsteps and around the world. There are no easy answers and no easy ways to decide how to allocate our tzedakah.  It is up to us to keep in mind the teachings of Rav Yosef and the Hatam Sofer and make our own decisions.  Here are some guidelines that I would suggest:

1. Be intentional about giving. Gather as a family and discuss, and perhaps vote, on the criteria that you would like to use when deciding how to allocate your tzedakah (righteous giving) this year. (Criteria could include: issues about which you are particularly passionate, those within our community and those beyond our borders, immediate verses long-term concerns, and a diverse group of people and issues)

2. Conduct research on specific organizations, find out how they use the money they receive, what percentage of donations contribute to overhead costs, and use websites like “Guidestar” to look at the organization’s nonprofit report and tax information.  Before you give to a specific organization, call them and ask if you can allocate your donation to a specific cause within their organization.

3. Support organizations that have been recognized by those we trust. For disaster relief and international aid, consider supporting AJWS who effectively support grassroots sustainable change (http://www.ajws.org) and organizations that the Union for Reform Judaism and BETC support (http://urj.org/socialaction/issues/relief/). 

4. Help others with our time and political advocacy in addition to providing financial support.  Ask an organization about which you are passionate how you can help in other ways.

5. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems in one year or by yourself!  We have our whole lifetime to give to others.  Think about your giving as part of a long-term and community plan.

As Rabbi Tarfon teaches, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, you are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.  I hope you have a very happy New Year, one filled with joy and appreciation, reflection and giving.

Do you agree with these guidelines? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments section below!

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