My great teacher, R. Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, just addressed this very question in a recent issue of Tradition, a journal of Jewish thought. His answer, on which I could not improve, was that we have many reasons to want to give to all kinds of charities, those that improve the world at large as well as those that improve the lives of Jews in particular. While that is true in theory, though, in practice we have limited resources and cannot cover all the many great needs that exist. For that reason, and keeping in mind the idea we would like to get back to, he argued that much or most of our charity should be directed towards Jewish causes.
Our tradition has a great deal to say about tzedakah, including how to set priorities for giving. In general one is obligated to support his or her own family first, then the poor in one’s own city and then the larger community. On the other hand, some sources suggest that one ought to support the most needy first, with food taking priority over clothing, or the more vulnerable taking precedence over those who might be more able to protect themselves. And while many commentaries assume that support for Jews takes priority over support for non Jews, we are explicitly instructed in the Talmud (Gittin 61a) to support the non-Jewish poor as you do the Jewish poor for the sake of peace.
What does “for the sake of peace” mean? Perhaps it suggests that we will get along better with our non-Jewish neighbors if they know we want to help them as well as Jews. Or perhaps it means to teach us that the way to live in peace is to recognize that every human being is, like us, created in the image of God and therefore worthy of our support.
So the answer seems to be: we must do both…support Jewish causes as well as more universal ones. It does seem clear that Jews must support Jewish causes, because if we don’t, who will? Who cares about Jewish education except Jews? Who cares about maintaining synagogues other than Jews? But we can’t stop there…. we must also care about other people and universal problems.
One model that works comes from the innovative teen philanthropy program at my synagogue,
TempleEmanuel of Beverly Hills. MATCH, Money and Teens Creating Hope, is an endowment fund run by the teenagers of the temple. Each year they study traditional texts about tzedakah and determine what they think the priorities of a Jewish philanthropy ought to be. They choose an issue, research organizations that respond to the issue, often through site visits and meetings with the leaders and those who benefit from the work. And then they allocate three fourths of the interest to those organizations. The remaining one quarter of the funds stays within TempleEmanuel, with the students determining what program or need within the temple is deserving of their support.
The original donor was very wise. By setting up the foundation with the clear instructions that one fourth of the funds must be allocated to our own synagogue, the students learn that they must give tzedakah both to support our own community at the same time that they use their resources to make a difference in the larger world.
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