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I’ll Tell You if You Tell Me: Talking about Giving

How much is too much to share online?

When my husband and I give away ten percent of our income every December, we attempt to distribute it among different populations and issues that we want to support.  Last December, we realized that, in the spirit of the tzedakah priorities articulated in the Talmud, we wanted to give more money to support Jews facing poverty in our city, but we didn’t know which organizations served that particular constituency.  So, we posted the question on Facebook and received a bunch of recommendations.  In response to our friends’ suggestions, we shared our own favorite organizations to donate to, posting the list of all of the organizations that we were supporting in 2010. 

Before sharing the list, my husband suggested that we include the amounts we were donating along with the organizations.  “Are you sure that’s a good idea,” I asked.  “Why not?  What’s wrong with it?  Won’t it inspire people to give as generously as we do,” he replied.  “But people just don’t share that kind of financial information, especially online,” I countered. 

After some discussion, we decided to leave the numbers out of it, but it’s a decision that I continue to struggle with.  In an age in which we don’t hesitate to share useless information like what we ate for breakfast or personal information like our “relationship status,” why hold back information that could truly improve people’s lives?

In ancient times, income and tzedakah were far less private.  One of the primary forms of giving in the agricultural society of the Bible was the system of pe’ah‚ landowners left the edges of their fields unharvested so that those facing poverty and hunger could come and collect food.  Pe’ah is famously cited as an example of a law that has no fixed amount; so people could set aside as much as they wanted.  So what prevented people from leaving aside only a tiny section of their fields?  Probably the fact that, since the portion set aside for those facing poverty had to be at the edge of the field, everyone could see how big, or small, it was.  Pe’ah was the ultimate in transparency‚ everyone knew how much people made and everyone knew how much they gave.

Imagine what such a system would look like today.  What if everyone knew how much everyone else earned and how much they donated and where?  Would it pressure us into giving more?  Would it make us more careful about where we donate?  Would it make us more likely to pool resources and give collectively?  Would we talk to each other more about how we make decisions around spending and giving?
In the spirit of pe’ah, I try to talk much more openly about how much money I give away and where I give it.  This transparency motivates me to give as much as I can and to have good reasons for why I allocate my tzedakah in the way that I do.  I hope that it inspires my friends and colleagues to give more generously and to give more thoughtfully as well.  And I hope that one day we all know as much about each other’s tzedakah practices as we do about each other’s love lives.


Lisa Exler is a senior program officer in the education and community engagement department at AJWS. In her four years at AJWS, she has developed and managed a range of educational materials that promote the values of global citizenship in the American Jewish community. Prior to joining AJWS, she taught third and fourth grades at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan for three years. Lisa has a B.A. and an M.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. Lisa can be reached at lexler@ajws.org

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