What is Jewish Philanthropy?
I recently returned from a trip to Israel where, among other things, I discussed, debated, and reflected on what it means to be a Jew. Having left the synagogue for good after my Bat Mitzvah 12 years ago, I was never sure if, why or how I was Jewish. Did eating gefilte fish on Passover make me Jewish? Did my last name – Goldberg – make me Jewish? How about the occasional “schlep” or “schvitz” thrown into my conversations? I was hoping a visit to the holy land would spark something in me and answer these questions once and for all.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. I stepped off the plane where my other first-timer friend suddenly felt the urge to jump into a puddle and kiss the rainy street water. I felt no such urge. We took a walk to the Western Wall where I feigned amazement but couldn’t quite get my heart to buy into it. Where was my inherent and inexplicable connection? Had my leaving the organized Jewish community actually taken away my Jewish identity?
For two weeks, I struggled with these questions – sometimes aloud, sometimes not. Then one day, amidst my feelings of loss and isolation, we went on a site visit to BINA (http://www.bina.org.il/english), a secular Yeshiva that allows non-religious Jews to explore their Jewish roots through service, philanthropy, and the pursuit of social justice. As the organization’s leaders spoke, my spirits lifted. This was something I could get on board with. A Jewish identity not based on synagogue attendance or a love for Israel, but rather based on a devotion to Tikkun Olam – to repairing the world. Finally, I had answers. This was a Jewish identity I connected to. This was a Jewish identity I actually felt.
After two weeks, I came home feeling proud of my newfound clarity. In conversation with a colleague I summarized my struggle and beamed as I described how I had found my answer: “I am a Jew because I am fulfilling my obligations to give philanthropically and to fight for global justice!” I expected a warm smile, perhaps congratulations. You can imagine my surprise when my colleague smiled and asked, “Do we own these concepts?” She had a point – if I was giving to charity and pursuing social justice before, why are they suddenly only now expressions of my Jewish identity? What was I doing before?
So here I am, back at square one, asking all of you out in cyberspace to help me. What is Jewish philanthropy? What does a Jewish pursuit of justice look like? What makes a Jew’s giving different from that of a non-Jew and what makes certain giving “Jewish”?
I know these questions don’t have easy or straight-forward answers. And I’m not sure if answers to these questions would even help me in my quest for Jewish identity. But I figured I’d throw it out there, and if nothing else, at least I could lay all my tsuris on the table.