Charity dollars are holy dollars

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities is meeting in Jerusalem with the world reeling from the economic meltdown. More than 2,500 powerhouse leaders gathered, planning to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. Instead, the participants are sobered, dreading the cutbacks they will have to impose on so many worthy recipients in Israel and abroad. Hopefully, before these generous trendsetters of the Jewish world limit gifts to the needy, they will discuss how they can make their organizations – and their own lifestyles – leaner.

A villa with a pool. An ethos...

A villa with a pool. An ethos of good work must replace the culture of perks.

As we emerge from this age of excess so many of us have enjoyed, we should acknowledge how we started treating luxuries as necessities. In the ever-escalating spending spiral that typified this era, the art of austerity succumbed to the lure of luxury.

Consider one minor but representative example: Many foundation executives, federation officials and university administrators regularly travel business class and stay at first-class hotels on their organization’s tab. Leaders of non-profits once traveled modestly and even lived relatively humbly to demonstrate their virtue and their fiscal prudence. Today, professionals join laypeople in consuming conspicuously, somehow trying to show the charitable leader’s ability to play in the big leagues. As a donor who flies economy class between Israel and North America, both when I pay my way and when a non-profit invites me to speak, I am appalled that charitable institutions pay the airlines’ absurd business-class markups.

An ethos of good works must replace this culture of perks. Charity dollars are holy dollars. Just as US government officials fly economy to demonstrate respect for the taxpayers’ dollars, charitable leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds should show their reverence for donors’ dollars at home and abroad. And if laypeople traveling on the Jewish people’s business followed suit – maybe directing the money they otherwise would have frittered away back toward their favorite charities – they would generate the moral momentum we need.

Belt-tightening is never fun and is rarely sought. But if it is happening anyway, better to ride the wave than be walloped by it. In the 1970s, president Jimmy Carter preached a sourpuss, gloom-and-doom message, essentially saying, “Get used to it, the good times are over.” If he is wise, President-elect Barack Obama will preach an uplifting, redemptive message, essentially saying, “Let’s cut back until the good times return, but discover the good once we have to give up some goodies.”

THE JEWISH world is long overdue for a broader conversation about our spending priorities and what values they reflect. Most of us realize we have lost our moorings, although, typically, we see it more clearly in others or in our children, than in ourselves. Whenever I speak to North American audiences, criticizing our distorted me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, buy-buy-buy, now-now-now world, people nod their heads in agreement.

Most of us know that there has to be more to life than catching the latest sale in the mall, aping the latest popular culture trend, worshiping the latest hot celeb. Yet, somehow, we appear powerless against the mighty materialism of the modern mass media, as we succumb to its siren call. The humility even wealthy Jews were once famous – and a little distrusted – for has been replaced by the garishness enlivening so many modern caricatures of American Jews.

Many of our young people reflect both extremes. They luxuriate more intensely in modern excesses while denouncing the hypocrisy of organized Jewry more angrily. Many condemn the disconnect between the modesty of our tradition and the vulgarity of our lives – and our institutions. It is particularly painful to see so many Jewish high schools fall prey to this. Over the years I have had dozens of heartbreaking conversations with disillusioned graduates – or angry dropouts – from the Jewish day school system. Most reported how the cancer of careerism, the pathologies of peer pressure and the fascism of modern fashion mocked the Jewish values their teachers taught. In universities and birthright groups I repeatedly encounter the walking wounded, young idealists who were badly bruised by the snide, snippy judgments they endured in a Jewish school, camp or synagogue.

Of course, these afflictions are epidemic in modern capitalist consumer culture and reflect our people’s remarkable collective success. But in mastering modern society too many of us became seduced by it. And as Israel develops, the epidemic of excess afflicts Israelis too. The stoicism of the halutzic pioneering generation that built Israel and the immigrant generation that made it in America is equally passé – and sorely missed on both sides of the Atlantic.

OUR ZIONIST and Jewish traditions both offer out of our morass of materialism. The Zionist emphasis on collective responsibility balances the extravagances of the “I” with contributions to the “us.” Similarly, Jewish teachings about God and the people redirect human energies from getting to giving, from what is fleeting and superficial to what is eternal.

These messages are particularly welcome now, when many people are struggling with a diminished self-worth because of a shrunken net-worth. The markets delivered the devastating shock. Our mutually reinforcing Zionist and Jewish traditions can provide the therapy.

This summer, I spoke to UJC’s young leadership cabinet. It met, I admit, in a luxurious resort. But to save money – and to welcome future leaders from a wider ranger of income groups – it convened in Scottsdale, Arizona in July – the sweltering off-season. The deeply discounted hotel rates did not diminish the participants’ fun, and may have further fueled the impressive idealism and generosity they displayed. These are the kind of models we should follow in our communal lives and our personal lives – not only because we need to, but because we want to.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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1 Comment

  1. amitsavyon

     /  November 17, 2008

    Hi Gil, this is an important topic you bring up, and while I agree conceptually, I do have a question about one aspect I feel you didn’t mention, and wondering your thoughts on the matter.

    Often these organizations are funded – either in whole or at least in majority – by individuals who have been highly successful in business, and therefore are able to personally afford the more extravagant of life’s offerings.

    While the purpose of these charitable organizations is to help those who need money, there is also something to be said for the fact that the organizations do, also, reflect on the founders’ personal images. In other words, an organization risks tarnishing the founder’s image when if focusing too much energy on thrift and bean counting. Recent donators, such as Michael Cherney, Len Blavatnik, illustrate the need for balance when focusing on thrift.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with where you’re coming from. In fact, you touch on an important point mentioned in the Drucker Foundation’s “The Community Of The Future”, where one of the contributing writers discusses how non-profits need to operate more like for-profits, that even though a non-profit’s mission is measured in “amount of good” rather than “amount of profit”, they do need to have more fiscal concern and make those connections between “cost and good”, and find ways to decrease unnecessary cost in the favor of necessary cost.

    I’d like to hear your perspective on this issue, thanks.

    Reply

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