We Have Never Seen…

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May 1, 2005
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Lee Meyerhoff Hendler

WHILE LAYING OUT the system for tzedakah collection in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides declares “We have never seen nor heard of an Israelite community that does not have an alms fund.” To Maimonides, who was in contact with Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora, it was inconceivable that a self-policing Jewish community would exist without a tzedakah fund.

Maimonides died in 1204. In 2005 there are over $4 billion in donor-advised funds in Jewish federation endowment programs in the U.S. and another $30 billion dollars in 7,000 privately run independent Jewish foundations. We are on the brink of a major transfer of wealth as the founders of these funds either hand them off to the next generation or invite the next generation to share responsibility for this operation. Like our Jewish sisters and brothers eight centuries ago, we continue to voluntarily surrender our financial resources to make the world a better place; we still reach into our pocketbooks when we want to make an enduring statement and invest life with meaning. Except today’s funds are not exactly like the alms funds of Maimonides’ times. Alms funds were raised and spent serving the needs of the Jewish community on a weekly basis, and people who refused to contribute could be compelled by the court, or be flogged, or have property seized.

Although a powerful Jewish impulse may have inspired the founders of today’s funds, the impulse has not necessarily been conveyed to the founders’ descendants. Today’s funds also lack the communal context of the alms fund, and there is no Jewish legal structure binding the collectors, contributors, and recipients. There is no web of obligation that imbues the process with a distinctive Jewish ethical purpose and vision. Nor will there be such a structure. Yet if we fail to address this structural gap with imagination and resolve — and infuse it with a particular Jewish purpose and meaning — we will lose a wonderful opportunity. We must give the next generation the Jewish vocabulary and tools to understand their work as funders and their place within a historical context where they have a wise and centuries-old tradition to turn to when faced with tough choices.

We can do this by becoming conscious of our roles as teachers. “And you shall teach your children…” If our children see us studying and actively incorporating Jewish concepts and values into our philanthropic work, they will see the value in learning. We can actively encourage their independent study, underwrite special educational programs for funders, bring in Judaic scholars to work with the funder community, and deliberately ask, where is the Jewish meaning in what I do and how, when, and where can I start to teach that meaning to my children and grandchildren?

Ethical issues regarding legacy, mortality, power, and authority will always arise when money is in play. Parents wrestle with how much money to leave to the community and how much to their children. Children struggle with how to honor their elders but express their own passions. Communities wonder how to accommodate the desires of funders without unduly compromising the communal agenda. What we should all pray for is not a solution to these perennial challenges. Rather, that we will turn to our own tradition for assistance in addressing them. Let us hope that years from now a scholar will write, “We have never seen nor heard of a Jewish community in which the Jewish funders do not study and learn together.”

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Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, author of The Year Mom Got Religion: One Woman’s Mid-life Journey into Judaism, serves on several of her family’s foundations. She is currently working on a collection of Divrei Torah for funders.

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