What is Jewish Philanthropy

I recently had a conversation with a community member who was concerned that more people in the Jewish community do not contribute to Jewish-specific causes. His sentiment is that there are millions of people to solve the issues of the world, but only Jews will take care of the Jewish community. Now, this is not a new argument or conversation. There are many, however, in the Jewish community who believe that by helping the homeless, fighting hunger, or preventing disease that they are upholding Jewish values and thus “giving Jewishly.” So, what is Jewish philanthropy?

I remembered a recent article written by Sarah Indyk, Jewish Life Initiatives Manager at the Rose Community Foundation in Denver, Colorado. Sarah coordinates the Rose Youth Foundation where 23 teenagers are charged with the responsibility of granting $60,000 to help solve community problems they identify in the Greater Denver and Boulder areas (this program is similar to our own Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation – OJCYF).

Whether in Denver or Portland, the participants in the youth foundation make thoughtful and well researched grants to support nonprofits serving the community (both Jewish and secular). They are, in essence, acting as Jewish philanthropists challenged with giving only to Jewish organizations or allocating resources based on Jewish values.

As Sarah writes, “answering the challenge provides a unique opportunity to explore the intersections of Jewish and personal values, community need and communal responsibility, thousand-year-old teachings and contemporary issues...There is a tension today between philanthropic support for the universal, the world of issues and needs beyond the Jewish community, and for the particular, the smaller world of issues and needs within Jewish communities. Both are essential.”

After Portland’s OJCYF participants made their final allocations, I spoke to one of the teenagers. I asked about the difficulty in making their funding decisions between Jewish organizations and non-profits within the general community. This teen responded, “I struggled. On the one hand I felt compelled to fund only Jewish programs and services, yet there are others with significant problems and it is our responsibility, as Jews, to support those with the greatest needs in our community.”

Our Jewish tradition has a lot to say about philanthropy. A wide range of teachings outline our responsibilities to our families, our communities, humanity and the world we inhabit. Judaism gives us so many directions about where, how and to whom we give, that we can see our Jewish responsibility to repair the world everywhere we see need.

Philanthropy is a learned behavior – it requires education, role modeling and passion. A priority should be to fund Jewish education and programs to connect people to Judaism and Jewish life. This will help ensure there are always people who feel a responsibility to care for those who have the greatest needs. In addition, philanthropic resources that address universal needs through a lens of Jewish values and tradition can serve as a powerful, illuminating and reinforcing expression of one’s Jewishness. Therefore, giving to Jewish organizations and giving Jewishly are not at odds with one another. The true dilemma is more personal -- how one decides to allocate his/her own finite philanthropic resources.

For years, some Jewish leaders have bemoaned the fact that 80% of dollars from Jewish donors go to secular causes. Mega-contributions are made to universities, hospitals and other causes around the world (which, of course, Jews do take part). Some question why many of these same philanthropists are not giving similar contributions to specifically Jewish causes? I would suggest there are several reasons:

1.    Jewish organizations do not ask.

2.    Jewish organizations have difficulty in developing a compelling enough vision with great enough impact for such a large gift commitment (beyond maybe a capital campaign).

3.    The Jewish community may not provide the same level of recognition as one gets for his/her philanthropy in the general community.

Our Jewish community has the opportunity to respond to these three points by working more closely together and aligning a common vision. We must be bold in our thinking to create a Jewish future we never dreamed possible.

Professionally speaking, I struggle with the “Jewish giving” and “giving Jewishly” conversation. My focus is on the Jewish community. I believe, however, that we cannot begrudge people for their philanthropic choices – in fact, we should be grateful and celebrate the generosity. In the end, people like you are making a tremendous difference and impact. Let us all do our part to make this world and our Jewish community a better place -- that is Jewish philanthropy.

Shabbat shalom.


Federation recognizes that we not only serve the Jewish community, but are also part of a larger world. In the past, our Jewish community has supported efforts addressing universal needs, including special emergency relief campaigns for tsunami relief, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and last year’s earthquake in Japan.

At the end of June, I received a phone call from a community member who talked with me about the two devastating “500-year” floods that ravaged Vernonia, Oregon in the last 11 years. The entire K-12 school district and community center has to be rebuilt at the cost of $40 million. They are very close to their goal. The Vernonia community has approached the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland to reach out to our Jewish community for help and support. As Jewish Oregonians, we have the opportunity to truly fulfill the mitzvah of tikkun olam and help “repair the world” right in our own backyard. If you would like to make a contribution at any level please click here and we will make sure that 100% of every dollar donated goes to rebuild the community. Thank you for your consideration and support.


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