Where Do You Give?

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Where, How, Why Do You Give? Rabbi David and Rabbi Jennie Rosenn Respond

April may be the cruelest of months, but March is when we usually find ourselves falling behind in our tzedakah schedule. Yes, we know it¹s only a quarter of the year in, but camp tuition means that we usually have less to give in the beginning of the year and then race to catch up in the middle to avoid the equivalent of a charitable balloon payment at the end of the year.

It¹s a yearly discipline. We set the schedule each January after going over the previous year¹s contributions and asking a few basic questions: Did we hit our goal? Does the distribution still seem right?  Any changes for next year?

The goal is 10% of our after-tax income. We tithe in part because of the religious call to do so (10% is actually just ³average² according to Jewish teachings ­ 20% is the ideal. See Shulhan Arukh, Yoreah Deah 253:1), and partly because of our sense that tzedakah should be a significant commitment, something big enough that we have to plan for it, something that is less a discretionary spending than a core commitment like paying the rent. Tithing also shifts our tzedakah from being something episodic and reactive to a practice that requires serious thought, planning, and choices in our lives.

Then there are questions of distribution. First we compare the amounts we are giving locally and nationally with the amounts we give to causes in Israel and to other places in the world. Then we look across issue areas and make sure that we are planning to address a range of critical issues like access to health care and housing and food security. Finally there are questions of approach: direct relief to people in need, structural change to address injustices, and poverty prevention to name a few. This, in turn, raises all sorts of questions like whether we should prioritize absolute need, our relationship to the recipient, or numerous other criteria. In our family, absolute need and local giving tend to rise to the top, but the debates renew themselves every year.

And this is where the question of changes comes in. In good years, we find ourselves with a bit more to give and we need to figure out how to do that ­ add more recipients or increase the amount we give to the good causes we already support? More recently, we¹ve started to make changes because as our kids grow older we¹ve begun to incorporate their ideas and interests into our family giving.

Every January, we renew our giving plan, and every March it feels some strain. Usually, we¹re back on track by late summer. The plan provides a structure for our offerings throughout the year. Like a prayerbook, it is a channel for our gratitude, our solidarity, and our hope.

Photo courtesy of jridgewayphotography

Rabbi David and Rabbi Jennie Rosenn

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn is the Director of the Jewish Life and Values Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Prior to coming to the Foundation in 2004, Rabbi Rosenn served as a rabbi at Hillel of Columbia University and Barnard College. Rabbi David Rosenn is the Chief Operating Officer at the New Israel Fund. Prior to joining NIF, David founded and served as the Executive Director at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

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