As summer turns to fall, Jews around the world prepare to celebrate their High Holy days. These celebrations are not simply a time to look forward to a new year, but a time of deep personal reflection on how we have lived our life over the past year. We are instructed that in order for God to write our names in the Book of Life and grant us another year of life, we must all engage in Tshuvah (Repentance), Tfilah (Prayer) and Tzedakah (Charity).
As someone engaged in the business of philanthropy, the issue of charity is close to my heart. The overly simplistic view is that charity means giving to others less fortunate than you. While I don’t want to discount the value of providing people in need with food, clothing and a roof over their heads, I think a deeper insight into the Jewish meaning of charity will help us achieve a greater, more meaningful impact on the lives of the people we are serving.
The root of the Hebrew word for charity (tzedakah) is derived from the word for justice (tzedek). In Judaism, this link is significant because it commands us to internalize that the act of giving charity is meant to create a just society; the pre-cursor to today’s social justice movement.
For donors and philanthropists, the question poses itself: How can we give charity to achieve justice? We’ve heard of the proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” All too often, we think about the kind of charity that essentially provides the fish and neglects the how to fish aspect.
We look at the problem and come up with easy solutions instead of digging deeper and thinking more strategically about solving the very real problems facing our society.
The goal of philanthropy is to change our world for the better and not just put a band aid on the problem.
Let’s take the example of the focus of our foundation’s philanthropy, namely the full inclusion of people with disabilities in our society.
There are many philanthropists who fund in the area of disability and support separate schools for kids with disabilities, sheltered workshops and segregated housing for people with disabilities. I believe they feel that they are helping those less fortunate in attaining the basic needs that one requires, but they are actually doing a disservice for the people with disabilities they are supporting.
Twenty percent of the US population has some form of disability. People with disabilities have to combat preexisting prejudices, social exclusion and employment barriers. What kind of just society have we created if one-fifth of it is separated and looking in from the outside? The true meaning of philanthropy is to engage in justice and use charity to pursue that lofty goal. True justice means recognizing that each individual has abilities and should be treated as everyone else. By supporting integrated schools, employment in the workforce and housing in the community, we believe that we are helping people with disabilities become valued members of our society and therefore strengthening our entire society.
There has always been and will always be a need to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. But the challenge lies in creating sustainable change, a permanent shift in attitudes on how we treat each other and a society which is just and equal. I believe that we are compelled to carry out justice through our philanthropy and not simply engage in the kind of charity that makes us feel good.
As we enter this Jewish New Year, let each of us dwell on how we engage in our philanthropic efforts and whether we are doing justice to the true meaning of charity.The author is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
It supports innovative programs that promote the full inclusion of people with disabilities into the Jewish community and Israel. Connect with Jay on Twitter @JayRuderman
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