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The Art of Giving


Tzedakah is deeply rooted in the Jewish soul. Indeed, the Rambam discusses how tzedakah is considered to be a sign that one is a descendant of Avraham Avinu. But if giving is such a fundamental part of Jewish life—shouldn’t we think and plan more about the charity we give, irrespective of the amount? As Rabbi Aaron Kotler, CEO, Beth Medrash Govoha, contends in his essay, just as every family, hopefully, engages in some form of financial and budget planning, they should invest in some form of “tzedakah planning” as well. In the pages ahead we asked a number of individuals connected to the world of philanthropy to reflect on how we give, why we give, and the ways in which giving is changing.


On Giving and the Pandemic

By Rabbi Aaron Kotler, as told to Binyamin Ehrenkranz

Covid has definitely driven need around the world for Jewish institutions and families, some of it unevenly. The Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, for example, are struggling mightily because there was no government funding. In the US, due to the PPPs (Paycheck Protection Program) and stimulus funding provided by the CARES Act, many Jewish institutions received significant governmental help along the way.

Here in America, there are definitely people in our community who are struggling. For every businessperson doing great or even better during the crisis, there are five others doing much worse. Donors who are involved in the retail and travel sectors, among other sectors are having a hard time right now. On the other hand, baruch Hashem, the unemployment numbers are starting to improve. So hopefully we are in a dip that will not be long-lasting.


Rabbi Aaron Kotler is CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey.

Binyamin Ehrenkranz is a member of the Jewish ActionEditorial Committee.


By Rabbi Shalom Baum

Many members of the Orthodox community are currently facing multiple economic challenges, whereas others are still thriving. Although the long-term economic impact of Covid-19 remains unpredictable, this income gulf will likely continue. The Ibn Ezra, who faced many financial struggles, describes an individual’s financial condition as cyclical (Bereishit 34:25). This should be comforting to those facing economic difficulties, while giving pause to those who are still prospering. It seems to me that the pandemic has given many people the opportunity to reconsider their lifestyle and to possibly expand their charitable giving. Many families blessed with affluence are now intellectually and morally considering the degree of comfort and opulence that is appropriate for their own spiritual and emotional health, as well as for their children. In the face of crushing illness and death, and with more time spent with family and less time traveling, many people have modified their definitions of “I have enough” (see Alei Shur 2:145) and have sought to be more available for familial and personal growth and development. A number of individuals have told me that they have also started to consider the degree to which their own standards of expenditure and lifestyle impose pressures and expectations on others within the community.

In an article entitled “On Complexity and Clarity” that appeared in Jewish Action (fall 2015), Rabbi Shalom Carmy recalls that when Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, was asked how to balance the tzedakah needs of Israeli institutions with those of local American causes, he stated that “cutting down on luxury vacations might leave ample money for both” (see Rema, YD 551:3). The ethics and ethos of such a lifestyle is a discussion worth having, and is one that I regularly discuss from the pulpit and in private conversations with shul members.

This challenge has become even more pronounced in the five years since Rabbi Carmy’s essay was published. Until March 2020, our community placed great emphasis on luxury living. This lavishness was no longer restricted to weddings, or Pesach or “Yeshivah Week” vacations in exotic locations, but was apparent in weekly ads in local Jewish newspapers for expensive wines, aged liquor and top cuts of beef. Because last Pesach was generally observed within the confines of our individual communities, there was less chatter about anticipated vacations, and no social media postings of exotic trips taken. Semachot are now by law, and often by choice, more modest affairs. These reductions in expenditures have not only prompted self-reflection but have made more funds available to already generous people to distribute to individuals and institutions in need. Many have stepped up during this new reality to be even more giving, and I would expect this to become the new normal, even as we look forward to holidays spent together and less scaling down of the number of guests at our semachot.


Rabbi Shalom Baum is rav at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey.


On Priorities

By Rabbi Aaron Kotler

In deciding philanthropic priorities, there are halachic parameters to ma’aser and tzedakah, as noted in the Shulchan Aruch and Rambam. Getting to know those will help ensure that one fulfills his mitzvah responsibilities.  Within the parameters of halachah, an individual has the freedom to make his own personal choices as to what he considers best for his spiritual and familial goals. I don’t think anybody should decide those goals for anyone else. It is the role of rabbanim and communal leaders to provide hashkafah and background so that we can all make informed choices.

Every family, hopefully, assesses their income and expenses and engages in some form of financial and budget planning; tzedakah planning should really be a part of that. Unfortunately, there aren’t many planning resources that can help. Why not review your tzedakah with an impartial posek, just as you would review your general finances with a financial professional?

In our world, much of tzedakah giving is driven not by a strategic plan but by “daily opportunities” that present themselves as a visible need, such as someone knocking on your door, or your child’s school administrator telling you he needs to make the budget. A person could decide that a certain percentage of his tzedakah will be reactive, but he should have an overall plan, which would make giving much more meaningful. Whether you make $50,000 or $50 million a year, having a tzedakah plan will be rewarding. Planning can be as simple as saying, “This is the amount of tzedakah I estimate for the coming year, and I’m going to make allocations. I will allocate X amount for people who knock at my door; X amount for emergency causes; X amount for community organizations; and X amount for kollelim and yeshivos around the world.”

There are some philanthropists—and I mean this in a very positive sense—who have professionalized their giving, giving significant thought to this topic, asking themselves, “What are my resources and what are my priorities?” Such donors are aiming to get the most bang for their buck. They want to get the greatest sechar and the greatest satisfaction from giving.

Having a tzedakah plan requires some engagement. Once you invest time and effort into developing a plan, it becomes a labor of love.


By Margy-Ruth Davis

How to give? If we are being honest with ourselves, let’s admit that we often give out of habit, or through peer pressure, or because someone has asked us whom we cannot turn down.

What if we had the luxury of giving based only on priorities? If the slate were wiped clean, our calculations might be very different.

Classic Jewish sources give us the beginning of an answer. Family comes first, then community and communal institutions. Israel, of course. Torah scholarship. And sages, from the Talmud on to Rabbi Yehuda Unterman, remind us to give tzedakah to universal causes.

There are vital reasons for supporting neighborhood institutions, even if we don’t benefit from them personally. In his comprehensive report for the Avi Chai Foundation, Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy, Dr. Jack Wertheimer tells us that local donors are the bedrock of Jewish communal life. These contributions keep our shuls open, pay the yeshivah teachers, maintain the mikvah and provide scholarships for summer camp.

A recent survey by the Jewish Funders Network found that more than 3/4 of respondents had increased their giving in response to the pandemic, and more than half had broadened their giving to include new causes.

Shira Hanau, “Jewish Philanthropists Have Increased Their Giving During the Pandemic,”  JTA, Jan 2, 2021.

If local donors don’t sustain local institutions, no one else will. Building campaigns are a community stress test. In effect, they are a probe of whether we care enough about our kehillah to make a major contribution, a gift drawn from our assets and that stretches our capacity.

Our gifts are vital because there are no national funders who are going to swoop in and save our mikvah or local day school. Without well-functioning local organizations, communities cannot attract and retain young families. Neighborhoods would soon stagnate and eventually wither. We are halachically directed to support and sustain those who live closest to us—but their well-being is also very much in our own self-interest.

Yet we don’t only live in our own, circumscribed pod. Our obligations extend to fellow Jews in the United States, Israel and worldwide. If Knesset Yisrael is one body, we are each of us touched by a danger to the rest.

We see this most clearly in moments of crisis. Abe Pollin, z”l, who owned the Washington Nationals, used to describe the winter evening early in 1947 when his father took him to a gathering of local ba’alei batim. The chairman opened by saying, “No one leaves this room until we raise the money.” He locked the doors. By the end of the night, they had raised enough to buy the refugee ship, the Exodus.

But when we’re not faced with such emergencies, we must still respond to the needs we see around us.

Margy-Ruth Davis is a founder and principal of Perry Davis Associates, an international fundraising firm.


By Rabbi Shalom Baum

The Tur (YD 256) prescribes that before distributing tzedakah funds, the gabbaim in charge of disbursement should use their intelligence and foresight to evaluate the particular needs of individuals within their community. Our standards should be no less when we, as individuals guided by halachic authorities, attempt to benefit our families and communities with the gifts granted to us by our Creator and Provider. After finding a balance between living and giving (Shulchan Aruch YD 249), we must determine the individuals and charitable institutions to whom we wish to donate. This has been an ongoing question in halachic literature. The Sifrei in Devarim (Piska 116) offers guidelines for making these decisions, based on elements such as familial and geographic proximity to the donor. This list has been codified into law (Shulchan Aruch YD 551:3). For example, we must first donate to family members and then to people living in our immediate area. Residents of Israel and institutions in Israel must also be considered, with the Chatam Sofer (YD 233:44) according those in Jerusalem a special status.

Although it provides a general framework, this list is not an absolute codification of how to distribute our funds. According to the Aruch Hashulchan (YD 251:5-6), it is meant to emphasize and prioritize particular needs, but not to the exclusion of other charitable demands, as details of giving cannot be determined using an inflexible rule or formula. Rather, giving should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, has many responsa on this topic, stating (Iggerot Moshe YD 1:144) that individual donors have greater flexibility than communal charitable funds in allocating donations. Rav Moshe (Iggerot Moshe YD 2:115) was once asked to help determine whether a community should prioritize funds to build a new mikvah or to strengthen an already existing yeshivah. Included in his answer is a mandate for the local rabbinate to study the relevant facts on the ground before making a final decision. Similar types of questions about establishing priorities are discussed throughout rabbinic literature.

Rabbi Joseph ben Solomon Colon in thirteenth-century France (Maharik 128) emphasized the centrality of synagogues as recipients of a fair share of communal funds, even in the face of conflicting requests. This emphasis was codified in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 249:16), although other opinions have been advanced by, for example, the Vilna Gaon (YD 249:16) in the eighteenth century and in later commentaries. While synagogues were physically closed, especially at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to support these epicenters of Jewish communal life continues. In addition to funding their ongoing activities, synagogues had to quickly begin to provide for the spiritual, intellectual, social and physical needs of their communities, even from a distance. In many ways, these have always been essential roles of the beit knesset. Historically, these efforts have included providing kiddushim and food for wayfarers (Pesachim 111b), establishing social outlets for membership (Megillah 28b), and providing for the ritual obligations of less educated members of the community (Sefer Kol Bo 44 and Shulchan Aruch, OC 124:1).


On Donor Rights

By Rabbi Aaron Kotler

A donor has a right to say, “I want to support a particular cause.” Therefore, if an institution initiates a relationship with a donor, it’s a two-way responsibility, because if you take money from someone, you need to represent yourself accurately. The institution needs to articulate its mission clearly—this is what we do and this is what we’re going to do with your money.

What donors want most is disclosure. They want to know what their money is going for, if not in detail then at least in a general way; they want to know that the organization is well run. If the donor appreciates the mission and how the organization is run, then he is the right donor for that organization. After that, he should not be involved in dictating its policies.

Conflict sometimes arises when there is a lack of clarity about the mission of the institution. For example, a donor may say, “I want to support kiruv.” A local yeshivah might have a rabbi on staff who engages in a kiruv but overall it’s not a kiruv institution. It would be appropriate for the yeshivah to say, “Look, we’re a yeshivah, that’s our mission, it’s what we do. Yes, we have a rabbi who does kiruv.  We’d like you to fund that program, but don’t expect all our boys to go out every Wednesday night and do kiruv. That’s not what we do.” To avoid conflict, an institution should have a clear mission and convey that mission to potential donors so they understand what they are supporting.

At the end of the day, giving is very personal. It’s emotional; it’s spiritual; it’s where an individual is growing his own spiritual assets.


On Being Well Run

By Rabbi Aaron Kotler

Many institutions have strong boards. At Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) in Lakewood, the chair of our audit committee is CFO of an $10 billion-dollar hedge fund. Another board member is a leading director at Blackstone, which is a major financial firm. We have the capacity to have a board like that, which has inspired confidence in us.

Smaller institutions or local yeshivos are not expected to have board members with that range of experience. But a donor can still get a sense of how well an organization is run; it can be by knowing that your local reliable accountant is on the board.

In general, I think that the Jewish nonprofit/tzedakah community in North America has relatively well-run institutions, be it Bikur Cholim, Hatzalah, Tomchei Shabbos, mikvahs or yeshivos. I don’t see Hatzalah ambulances driving around with gold-plated bumpers, metaphorically speaking. Most Jewish nonprofits don’t have massive overheads that really cross the line. Are there inefficiencies? There will always be inefficiencies. Are there places that could do a better job or that need a reboot every now and then? Here in BMG we’re always taking a fresh look and asking, how do we save money, how do we do a better job?  I am in touch with many other institutions and I often see the same attitude.

Perhaps a more important question that should be asked when weighing priorities is how necessary the institution is altogether. For example, do we need Jewish museums? I’m not sure. A friend of mine helped build a Jewish museum in an out-of-town community. Those who donated to the museum were not the kind of people who would have donated to the local shul or mikvah. My friend did a great job raising funds among this population. Would that be my own communal priority? No. Personally I think there are greater priorities. There are poor families, struggling kollel families, rebbeim who are not managing financially and these would be my focus. I still respect the person who makes a different choice—so long as his choice is in accord with halachah.


On Shifts in Giving

By Rabbi Shalom Baum

When donating money to the poor, halachah assigns great value to keeping the donor and recipient unaware of each other (Shulchan Aruch YD 249:7). This anonymity maintains the dignity of the needy individual and reflects the modesty and humility of the donor. By contrast, there is much precedent in the mesorah for recognition of donors to causes such as schools and shuls. While we are cautioned against seeking glory for making charitable contributions and are taught that gloating about one’s generosity is a bad omen for the contributor, it is certainly permitted—and even appropriate—to memorialize a contribution by placing the name of the donor on the item or on the wall of a building (Rema, YD 249:13). The source for this is a responsum of the Rashba (Teshuvot HaRashba 681), who provides several justifications for the common practice of placing a donor’s name on a donated object. One justification is that expressly recognizing the contributions of donors by name “opens the door” and provides an incentive for other people to contribute.

Local donors are the bedrock of Jewish communal life.

In November 2015, in preparation for a capital campaign at my shul, I asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, if it was ideal to rely on this Rashba to create multiple levels of incentives for communal giving or if it was perhaps only a concession to people’s egoistical desire for recognition. Rav Kanievsky advised me that the halachah states that recognition is an ideal form of giving to institutions by most individuals. However, he also acknowledged that this is not the only lechatchilah (ideal) way and that persons seeking no recognition should not be pushed in that direction, as their desire for anonymity is best for them. I have noticed that throughout this pandemic there has been little or no necessity to create incentives, not only for giving to the needy but also when soliciting or receiving funds for communal institutions. Most donors do not seek any recognition and appreciate the urgent and compelling need to maintain these institutions, especially during a time of crisis. Many have come forward even before being approached.

In time, we will likely return to the more traditional way of showering honors on those who truly deserve it. There is broad backing for such an approach (see Teshuvot V’hanhagot 2:481), although this should remain at the discretion of the giver. At times, anonymity is a reflection not only of modesty but of an awareness of the unique period that confronts us.


By Margy-Ruth Davis

In how to give—and where to give—there have been societal shifts. Donors today are less likely to make unrestricted gifts except to organizations that they trust and know well. With a robust society and flourishing economy, Israel is no longer our poor relation. American donors now ask whether Israelis are also contributing to the institutions that they are asked to support.

In the broader Jewish arena, your giving may depend on your interests—on what speaks to you. For some donors, physical security is paramount. Others care deeply about spiritual security or about national policies that affect all Jews.

We also breathe the same air, use the same hospitals and enjoy the same concert halls and museums as our non-Jewish neighbors. Beyond the Talmudic concept of darchei shalom, walking in peace with those around us, we have a responsibility to the society we live in.

With these many priorities all pressing their claims on us, what percentage of our tzedakah fund should we allocate to each? Life-threatening urgencies always take precedence. Still, we can come up with a quick rule of thumb for typical years. Consider allocating one-half of your charity budget to local or regional obligations; 30 to 40 percent to Jewish causes worldwide; and the remainder to address societal issues.

In truth, making small gifts to everyone who asks is unhelpful. It dilutes the impact you can make. Worse, that $10 check or credit card donation may cost the organization more to handle than the contribution itself. Think about it: each gift must be logged in both bookkeeping and donor data bases. The credit card processor takes a small percentage. Checks are tallied and walked to the bank. Someone must write, print and send thank you notes and there are further administrative and accounting procedures and reconciliations.

If you do care about impact, fewer larger gifts will accomplish more than many smaller gifts. Of course, this depends on the size and scope of the institution—and on how much you are able to give. A gift of $1,000 may provide twenty families with a Passover Seder meal. Yet, the same $1,000 won’t even pay for a morning’s worth of electric bills at the local hospital.* Giving wisely and well is a difficult task, deeply rewarding but requiring an open heart, a keen eye and a sharp focus. They may be misattributed to Winston Churchill, but still these are words to guide us: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

* Ed. Note: This applies to those who can choose to make one large or many small gifts. Donors who make many small gifts according to their abilities are adhering to the mishnah in Menachot: “Whether [one gives] a lot or a little, [the key is] that one directs his mind and heart toward Heaven.”

This article was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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