Rabbi’s Corner

Got billions? Giving like the other half does

The philanthropic world was titillated recently when 40 members of the world’s wealthy elite — including 13 Jews — announced that they would give away more than half their money before they died. The participating philanthropists were responding to a challenge issued this year by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to their billionaire peers to donate more than half their wealth in their lifetimes. Buffett and Gates call it “The Giving Pledge.”

The immediate response in the Jewish world was very odd, but in a bizarre way predictable. In fact, it reminds me of the ancient joke about anything — fine, they invented the computer, but is it good for the Jews?

Representative of the way many Jewish groups responded was Mark Charendorff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, an organization for givers of at least $25,000 annually to Jewish causes. He said, “This Giving Pledge is a very good thing but I remain unsure if it is a game changer for the Jewish community.”

After all, said Charendoff, “the average Jewish billionaire gives pretty much the way Americans give … we will see money go to higher education, to health care and possibly to the arts,” he said, noting that big Jewish money doesn’t usually go to specifically Jewish causes.

Of course, anyone who can say something about “the average Jewish billionaire” is living in a very different world than the one you or I inhabit.

The truth is we are a generous people. In fact, Jews are among the most charitable mega-donors per capita: more than one-third of living donors who have given away more than $1 billion are Jewish. But usually the overtly Jewish charities among their tzedakah portfolios pale in comparison to the general causes to which they give. Mega-philanthropists who have made Jewish causes a centerpiece of their giving are the exception. And almost without exception the Jewish organizations that commented on the Giving Pledge lamented this fact.

As the rabbi of a synagogue that has to raise funds annually to fulfill our mission, I am well aware that our donors often have other charitable priorities, and that they sometimes give a fairly modest percentage of their charitable donations to Jewish causes.

But look, this Giving Pledge is a kind of amazing event. A bunch of billionaires have decided to actually commit to giving away at least half their money. This is tzedakah on a magnificent scale, and spectacularly good. This is exactly what Judaism advocates everywhere, in every part of our tradition. We should celebrate this, with bells on, and not worry so much, “Is it particularly good for the Jews?”

Although Gates and Buffet aren’t Jewish, that 13 out of the 40 mega-mega donors taking the Giving Pledge are Jews is phenomenal. We are less than 2 percent of the American population overall, and while I know this will come as a shock to some, not all Jews are billionaires, or even millionaires. But we can learn from this particular group, which is giving half and more of its wealth to tzedakah.

We Jews invented the tithe, in our own Torah. And while few of us may be able to give away half our modest assets in our own lifetimes, we surely, in the coming 5771 year, can strive to give as our ancestors did. Whatever we earn, we can give 10 percent of it to tzedakah, Jewish or not. And if we do this we will help ensure that that this will be a year of goodness and blessing.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu —May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El.