Jewish Wealths

Stephen Schwarzman is a very wealthy man. And a very generous one.

The CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group, a New York investment bank, recently made the largest unrestricted gift to any New York cultural institution: $100 million, to the New York Public Library.

Mr. Schwarzman may well have made gifts to Jewish causes too. Although his current wife is not Jewish and their marriage ceremony was presided over by both a rabbi and a priest, many intermarried Jews maintain relationships to the larger Jewish community and its institutions. The $100 million, though, is going to the public library.

Untold millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars, sums to spin the head of those of us who think in $20 bill denominations, have similarly been donated to causes that, worthy though they might be, do not address needs exclusive to the Jewish community.

Those needs include the Jewish poor, who not only actually exist but comprise a sizable subset of some communities. In New York, fully 145,000 Jews are classified by the government as poor, and another 375,000 as “near poor.” There are considerable numbers of impoverished Jews in other American cities as well, and in Israel and Europe.

Then there are Jewish day schools and yeshivot that subsist on shoestring budgets, forced to pay subsistence salaries – if that – to their teachers and staffs. And, of course, the myriad worthy Jewish nonprofit organizations that oversee social, educational and cultural projects, and rely on the donations of individual Jews to serve the community.

Yet, as in the case of Mr. Schwarzman’s recent gift, the vast majority of private Jewish philanthropy benefits secular institutions like libraries, universities and museums.

According to a 2007 paper, “Mega-Gifts in Jewish Philanthropy,” written by Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg and published by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, more than 90% of Jewish individual “mega-gift” dollars over the years 2000-2003 were directed to just such entities. Health and medical causes came next. Jewish causes netted approximately 1%.

The strongly Jewishly-identified part of the Jewish community certainly has its own members of means, and they are generously committed to Jewish causes. But the lion’s share of the fruits of American Jews’ business and professional success seems to reside in less consciously Jewish coffers.

That led a thoughtful correspondent to point something out to me: While the secularist segment of the Jewish world may boast the most well-heeled philanthropists, the have/have-not equation is turned on its head when wealth is measured not in dollars but in the currency of Jewish knowledge.

In that calculus, it is precisely the fiscally unremarkable part of the Jewish population that holds the surplus, and the financially successful portion that is most impoverished.

Which thought led my correspondent to wonder further if the more Jewishly-knowledgeable world is sufficiently generous with its spiritual wealth.

It is a worthy question. To be sure, there are many impressive ventures aimed at sharing Jewish learning with Jews who might not have had previous opportunities to meet it. Such “outreach” and Torah-study groups take a variety of forms. Some produce written material; others offer classes and operate study-halls; yet others arrange telephone study partnerships or community Shabbat meals.

And then there are the websites, like aish.com, beingjewish.com, innernet.org.il, ohr.edu, simpletoremember.com (full disclosure: that one is the brainchild of my dear son-in-law) and Torah.org – each of them a cornucopia of Torah-knowledge for Jews seeking it.

There is, moreover, the celebrated and successful telephone study-partner “matchmaker” Partners in Torah (partnersintorah.org); and there are the major publishing houses, like ArtScroll, Feldheim and Targum (whose url’s are their names followed by “.com”), which offer excellent books in English on practically every Jewish subject under the sun.

Where there is arguably room for greater effort on the part of us observant Jews, though, is on the personal level. Opportunities abound in many of our lives for sharing Jewish knowledge – or, at very least, information about resources like those mentioned above – with Jewish relatives, neighbors and co-workers who may not have had the benefit of a Jewish upbringing.

And there are invitations, too, to be offered – for Shabbat or holiday meals, to attend synagogue services or lectures or Jewish celebrations together. Offering an experience of the vibrancy of contemporary observant Jewish life is the single most generous gift any Jew could possibly give another.

So, whether or not material wealth is flowing from the materially successful secular Jewish sphere to less affluent parts of the Jewish community, there is no reason why spiritual wealth should not flow freely from the latter to the former.

Who knows? my correspondent wonders further. Maybe more determinedly sharing such intangible but meaningful possessions will not only yield personal benefits to the Jewish recipients but constitute a merit for the economic wellbeing of Jewish institutions and charities. Addressing the imbalance in Jewish knowledge, in other words, could be the act of generosity to help trigger a positive change in the focus of philanthropists.

The thought is intriguing but moot. Reaching out to other Jews is the right thing to do.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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14 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    Are my eyes playing tricks on me, or did I just read how people are blaming Orthodox Jews for the non-Orthodox Jews who prefer to give their charity to gentile causes? What does one thing have to do with another?

    I could write a book on the negative experiences I have had with too many Orthodox Jews over the years. So what should I do, stop contributing to the cause of perpetuating our collective Torah legacy? I guess that means that because I have experienced rude behavior at supermarkets, that I should no longer buy food.

    I realize I probably have a mocking tone here, but I am frankly horrified that anybody would excuse Jews from giving their 10% to traditional Jewish institutions. We are so small in number, we are so hated by the world, we are forever on the verge of destruction…shouldn’t we at least do all we can to make sure we are not destroyed from within?

  2. D. says:

    My point was simply that people dont contribute money to people who laugh at them or mock them behind their backs. On an individual level many frum Jews have great love and affection for non-religious Jews. I do, and I’m sure many posters and writers on this blog do as well. But as an institution, we dont. Halacha very clearly distinguishes between religious and non-religious Jews. Secular Jews know this, and dont like it. So they dont give ’em any money. Pretty simple.

  3. Ori says:

    May I expand on what D says, and maybe explain it in a way that will be easier to understand?

    We Heterodox Jews accept the values of modern western culture, usually more than the traditional values of Judaism. One of those values is equating people with their actions. Therefore, when Orthodox Jews reject our actions as not authentically Jewish, we consider it a rejection of our Judaism.

    Intellectually, I know that’s not the Orthodox position – “An Israelite, even if he has sinned(1), is still an Israelite”. But it’s a very foreign concept. Most Heterodox Jews may not even know it intellectually.

    (1) Used here as a euphemism for converting to another religion.

  4. D. says:

    Is there any wonder why non affilaited Jews do not give more money to religious Jewish causes? Be honest – in the eyes of most religious Jews, secular Jews are practically not Jewish at all. Let’s not be naive enough to think successful non-religious Jews dont know this.

  5. Raymond says:

    From a purely personal point of view, I find this article to be refreshing, because it must mean that I have a strong Jewish conscience. I may not make much money, and I may not be religious, but it is not even a question in my mind that 10% of my net income goes to Jewish education as well as to hungry Jews. I frankly do not understand how any Jew can feel otherwise. We Jews are so tiny in number, and the few we have are either under constant threat of death or less direct forms of persecution, that I would think that all of us would have the siege mentality required to tithe our money first and foremost to our fellow Jews.

    Having said that, I do think that the way Torah teachings are presented to Jews in general, can be a turnoff. I know it is for me. I often find myself reading secular books not because I think I will find greater wisdom or true joy there then in Torah teachings, but rather because the secular books present their material in a much more attractive manner.

    Let’s take the realm of Torah books, for example. Many of them are super technical, some try to appeal to our sense of guilt or in other ways tug at our emotions. Some throw in obscure yiddish words whenever they can, as a way to settle arguments. Sometimes, the writer is a superb writer, but may compromise a bit on being a true representative of Torah-true Judaism.

    I can think of some welcome exceptions to this. The one that comes immediately to my mind is the late great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. He wrote about so many different aspects of Judaism, even the most esoteric, never appealing solely to our emotions, always treating the reader as an intelligent person worthy of his respect. He also wrote with such clarity, no doubt a product of his very logical mind. In the realm of Jewish law, I really enjoy the works of Rabbi J. David Bleich, who I think of as the Aryeh Kaplan of the Jewish legalistic world. I really really REALLY like the works of Rabbi Natan Slifkin, although I realize that I am being too controversial when I even bring his name up.

    I can think of several Rabbis whose lectures I have had the good fortune to experience in person, who are also excellent this way: first and foremost our own Rabbi Adlerstein; he is the consummate teacher, par excellence. I can think of no teacher greater than him. I think also of Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who has a unique way of presenting very traditional, Jewish ideas. I think of the late great Rabbi Uziel Milevsky of Ohr Sameyach in Jerusalem, who should have been more famous than he is.

    The point is, that it is possible to have excellent Torah teachers, but knowing Torah is only the first step in this process. It takes a person who truly respects his audience, who lives in the real world of today, who appeals to our mind rather than to our sentimentality, a man who is not afraid to tackle the tough issues that confront us.

  6. tzippi says:

    Re #8, I agree with you as far as the good will aspect. The question is, what is the minimum donation necessary to achieve this good will? And another: prioritizing. As important as libraries are, and I don’t underestimate it, as a grateful mother of several bookworms, there are so many other important causes, religious and otherwise. I say this in general, not concerning this one philanthropist as I don’t know what his other charitable concerns are. I also don’t know how much of an impact libraries had in his life, and why it is a cause so dear that he is giving such a substantial donation.

  7. Roman Catholic says:

    Who says a non-Jew who uses the public library won’t develop skills that will assist Jews in the future? I grew up in a household with a total of 2 books. If it hadn’t been for the generous holdings at my local library, I probably wouldn’t be working currently as a researcher in the field of Jewish advocacy. Funding a library has to be one of the better gifts that one can give to the poor. Moreover, don’t minimize the good will value that a gift with a Jewish name attached to it can afford.

  8. Barzilai says:

    By the way, if there are any other philanthropists out there that want to get together to do something magnificent, we really could use another desalinization plant in Israel. Now that would be a great way to participate in Yishuv Eretz Yisrael.

  9. Barzilai says:

    This article actually made the point that educated Jews are stewards of a spiritual resource just as the wealthy are stewards of a financial resource, and stewardship creates an obligation to apportion wisely to those who are in need. Reb Moshe Feinstein used to say that Bnei Torah have an obligation to tithe their most precious resource– their time– for the benefit of those that depend on them for guidance. I’m afraid that readers will focus on the frittered-away fiduciary duties of others instead of their own pastoral and educational responsibilities.

  10. Nachum Lamm says:

    Who says a Jew can’t use the New York Public Library? I went to the main branch last week and rather enjoyed their current exhibits, and have spent much time doing research and reading there.

  11. cvmay says:

    DITTO #3
    With sorrow, a life line to Judaism does not automatically occur at the pedigree birth from a Jewish Mother. The midah of ‘gomel chesed’ – ‘generosity’ is transferred by DNA but will not only target JEWISH causes.
    As several Torah communities sprout up in outlying communities there can be a possibility of reaching out to unaffiliated & disinterested JEWS. Unfortunely many communities are erecting high barriers to keep the outside world (& the Jews that live there) far away.

  12. Moishe says:

    Is anyone out there really surprised why a Schwartzman or An Eli Broad (donated HUNDREDS of millions to the arts, or a Haim Saban (100 Million Plus to various secular causes) or a Walter Annenburg (TV Guide publisher, gave a few hundred Million to USC) don’t support Jewish causes?

    What connection do they have to Judaism?

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    All of the facts in the article are true, but when counsumerism seems more dominant than Prishus , Pesach at home is becoming an endangered species and summer homes, whether in EY or elsewhere, are not uncommon, one wonders whether the priorities in our communities are so distorted that we have to resort to help from the heterodox and such solutions as tuition tax credits.

  14. Daniel says:

    Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai. He would say: If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself—it is for this that you have been formed.