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Striking a Balance: Social Change and Social Service Philanthropy

You are on a hike, deep in the mountains, and you sit down by a picturesque river.
As you dig into your picnic lunch, you catch a glimpse of something moving in the water.
Quickly, you realize that there is a series of babies floating down the river.
What do you do?

Years ago, I watched AJWS’ own Aaron Dorfman pose a version of this classic ethical case to a group of high school seniors at Prozdor, Hebrew College’s pluralistic supplementary high school.  Since then, I have posed it to dozens of high school and graduate student classes.  Students’ first instinct is almost always, “jump in the water.”  This typically sets off a flurry of affirming responses, and students describe variations of jumping in to save the babies.  Some will call 911 first (assuming cell reception despite the out of the way location), others might fashion a baby saving device.  Often after some prodding, the group will begin to wonder about the source of the floating babies.  If the scenario included two potential saviors, they muse, they would dispatch one person to find the source while the other saved those coming down the river. 

But with the limited resources of only one savior, students struggle to decide how to allocate her.  They worry that she can save babies for only so long before she tires and perhaps gets swept up by the current herself.  On the flip side, if she goes to staunch the flow, what about the lost babies during that time?  There is also the possibility that, when she reaches the source, she might be outmatched by baby throwers.  Even more babies could drown before another savior happens by the river. 

The elusive ‘perfect’ solution usually drives them totally crazy.  And while they may leave class annoyed with me, they are also thinking in a more nuanced way about the differences between what I will call here ‘social service’ and ‘social change’ philanthropy (while social change seeks to create long-term, systemic change by targeting root causes, social service works to provide aid to those in immediate need).  Most of the students have realized that they are not willing to let the babies drown in the immediate future, nor to let the source of the babies go unchecked.  So they are looking for some kind of compromise solution. 

Luckily for us, while the Jewish community also juggles commitments to the immediate needs of social service and the long-term, systemic problems which require social change, more than one savior happens by.  This allows us to spread out, to divide and conquer.  Perhaps some might work on the root causes of hunger and poverty through advocacy and policy reform, while others ensure that those in need get food and basic necessities today.  Perhaps it means that individuals will split their own resources, for example, spending some ‘upriver’ by educating about healthy relationships and the rest on the ‘riverbanks’ providing shelter and job training for victims of domestic abuse. 

A mandate to ensure a healthy balance between immediate and long term needs, social service provision and social change work seems embedded within Jewish terminology and tradition: tzedakah, tikkun olam, hesed, matanot levyonim, gemilut hasidim.  Each of these terms suggests a different approach to giving, ranging from using one’s time to help another directly to literally repairing the world (Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas recently dedicated its October 2011 issue to untangling the linguistic web).  Some organizations integrate these approaches internally; others specialize in either social service or social change. 

I wonder, though, do individuals and the collective American Jewish community strike the right balance between immediate and long term needs? At last count, 12% of all U.S. foundation dollars went toward social change (Foundation Center, 2009) and while the sector is growing, it is growing at a slower pace than total giving.  If this trend holds true within the Jewish sector, are there enough resources to really cure the root causes of day-to-day problems?  If not, then perhaps this is another layer of the ‘Where Do You Give?’ question that each of us is responsible to ask.  Consider looking at your philanthropic giving through this lens, or encourage your organization to assess their allocations with this in mind.  All together, it seems that we can create a Jewish communal system which will simultaneously send sufficient resources upriver to research, educate and advocate for social change, while stationing plenty of brave lifeguards to keep our communities - and those of our local and global neighbors - safe and sound in the meantime. 

Photo courtesy of MelRick

Deborah Skolnick Einhorn

Deborah Skolnick Einhorn recently completed her doctorate at Brandeis, where her research focused on Jewish women's organizations and philanthropy. Deborah serves on the faculty of Hebrew College, teaching graduate courses through BBYO's Professional Development Institute. She can be reached at dse@brandeis.edu.

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