New Englanders are the stingiest Americans, at least as measured by their charitable contributions, according to recent analysis of government and private records on tax-deductible giving. The common wisdom in Jewish non-profit agencies is that this generalization applies to the New England Jewish community as well. This certainly is the case with respect to Jewish giving to Jewish causes in Connecticut, including — and especially — in the Greater New Haven area. By some estimates, New Haven Jewish charitable giving averages less than one fourth that of some other American communities for people in the same income ranges.
In speaking with veteran Jewish leader and philanthropist Paul Goodwin on the eve of his repeat honor of distinction at an award dinner by the Jewish Foundation, a theme emerged to explain why some people give while others do not. “My parents were not wealthy people by any standard,” Paul explained, “but my father always supported the free burial society, orphan’s home, the UJA. There was always a pushke, a blue-and-white charity box, in our home. It was their example. I still have a pushke.”
George Posener, a Jewish philanthropist, and a native of New Haven, recalls, “a traveling rabbi from the big city would pick up the pushke every week and leave one for the following week.” Tzedaqa was part of George’s Jewish upbringing. Today, George makes sure he verifies that his contributions are being well-used by a worthy cause, which is why BEKI and Ezra Academy are among his favorites.
That same theme emerged several years ago in my conversations with Rena Miller’s uncle David, of blessed memory. He described how his mother would place a groschen, a small coin in circulation in pre-war Poland, in their pushke, every week before candle lighting in their very modest home. “Momma, we could use that penny!” he said. “Dovid, that groschen will join with many others and will change the world.” Ninety-some years later, at his death, David left the New Haven Jewish community five million dollars.
It seems that early childhood lessons of generosity at home play a major role in developing the charitable personality.
But many have not even reached the stage of the groschen, let alone significant giving.
Some years ago, when BEKI leaders were first discussing the present renovations and capital campaign, I surmised that we would have difficulty in raising funds because a large proportion of our membership is not native to Connecticut and therefore, I assumed, would be less willing to invest in our local institutions.
I was exactly wrong. As it turns out, at least in general, BEKI members who grew up in places other than New Haven tend to have an understanding of the culture of giving more than New Englanders. Of course, there are also very generous New Haven natives who should feel good about their accomplishments in building and sustaining a Jewish community. But by and large it is the middle-class and well-to-do natives who have provided inadequate support for local Jewish institutions. What I had expected to be our greatest weakness — the preponderance of “non-natives” in our Congregation — turns out to be our redeeming feature.
If you are a native of this region and give generously according to your means, then this is not meant as a criticism of you. As a rabbi I have no way of knowing how much people give to various charities other than what is acknowledged in public listings. But the cumulative statistics of tax returns and agency incomes confirms this generalization.
New Haven native Paul Goodwin has racked up many years — and perhaps several million dollars — as a solicitor for the UJC’s (formerly UJA), the JCC, BEKI, and other local organizations. I joined him on a solicitation one day and clocked him at $3,200 a minute.
“Someone who can give but doesn’t want to give” always finds an excuse, Paul remarks. “They are missing something important in their lives.”
It is a mitzva — a “commandment” or “religious imperative” — to give to the Jewish community, minimally at the level of 10% of one’s income per year. That can be to any of a number of qualifying agencies. One can fulfill the mitzva of tsedaqa without giving to this particular congregation. If someone doesn’t give to the synagogue, it’s our problem. But if someone doesn’t give anywhere, then that person has a problem. It is a religious problem, and it is one that concerns me as a rabbi. It also concerns the community.
Average levels of giving in some American cities — among people with incomes over $50,000 — is over 10% per year, even over 12% in some places. That is not happening in New Haven. There is every reason for each of us to at least reach the minimum required by our law and tradition, despite the easy excuses. And that means giving away 10% each year.
Many Christians tithe (giving 10%), and observant Muslims donate at least their zakat (2.5%). If we want to be responsible Jews, we must do no less. We must be true to our tradition. Those who give beyond 10% are giving generously; the rest of us are just doing our duty. Federation President (2001-2003) and BEKI member Barry Etra often points out that giving tsedaqa is an obligation, not an act of “charity.” It is not the same as “helping the poor” or performing “gemilut hasadim,” deeds of kindness, although those are also mitzvot. Tzedeqa requires a check or credit card (or stocks, bonds or cash) and it is a responsibility, not a saintly kindness.
I personally do not literally use a pushke often, but instead donate by check or charge card, so I can keep track of my giving. I itemize my tax deductions. The pushke should not convey the incorrect notion that giving pennies is sufficient. Nevertheless, the pushke remains a powerful symbol. The BEKI pushke takes checks.
The ever-present pushke teaches us that giving is a daily mitzva. The federal and state governments’ requirements that we submit tax forms helps insure that we fulfill the mitzva of making an account of our giving on an annual basis. The pushke also reminds us that the contributions of many add up to much and can make a big difference.
Rabban Gamliel said: Do not make a habit of tithing by estimate