There's no myopia here

Orthodox Jews focus their money where it will do the most good.

yeshiva study 88 (photo credit: )
yeshiva study 88
(photo credit: )
One benefit of having a lot of money is being able to speak one's mind bluntly. Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt has never been reluctant to employ that license. Recently, the mega-giver to Jewish causes, whose claim to atheism is belied by his commitment to projects he feels will help ensure a vibrant Jewish future, shared some thoughts about the Orthodox community, specifically about what he calls its "myopic" attitude toward the larger American Jewish one. Steinhardt, it seems, has two complaints. First, that the Orthodox community considers non-Orthodox Jews a "lost cause," since "it's just a matter of time before they assimilate" - a sentiment he claims to have heard from an Orthodox Jew several years ago. And second, that relatively few Orthodox dollars support non-Orthodox causes, like Jewish federations. Regarding charge number one, while broad brushes don't paint very accurate pictures, I tend to share Steinhardt's chagrin over the possibility that any Orthodox Jew might write off a fellow Jew as beyond reach and growth. I have in fact written for and spoken to Orthodox audiences warning against precisely that, and have heard many Orthodox religious leaders do the same. Charge number two, though, is thoroughly misguided. Whatever Steinhardt might think about Orthodox Jews' principles and beliefs, he presumably acknowledges their right to remain faithful to them. Particularly here, where the principles and beliefs at issue are the very ones that not only imbued the lives of earlier Jewish generations but are empowering the most vibrant growth and commitment anywhere in the contemporary Jewish world. And, sadly, those timeless Jewish beliefs and principles make it difficult if not impossible for many Orthodox Jews to view Jewish federations and the like as proper investments for their charitable contributions. Why? Because there are projects in the non-Orthodox American Jewish community that are patently, and deeply, objectionable to many Orthodox Jews. They may be efforts to promote "a woman's choice," or non-halachic conversion, or "outreach" to non-Jews. Some Jewish federations, including the national federation umbrella group, the United Jewish Communities, may try not to cross controversial Jewish lines, but nevertheless do, sending messages at irreconcilable odds with an Orthodox Jewish outlook. Take, for instance, the UJC's "Pride in Israel Mission" this past summer, which brought "members of the American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community" to Israel to meet with, among others, "leading LGBT community figures and organizations" there. It was a mission whose national chair, the vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, proudly described as having "strengthened our identities as LGBT Jews." In fact, the mission had originally been timed to coincide with the beginning of a 10-day "Love Without Borders: Jerusalem WorldPride" festival (which ended up being cancelled because of security concerns during the Gaza withdrawal). Whatever one's personal opinion about the "Pride in Israel Mission," it should be obvious that few Orthodox Jews would want any of their hard-earned income going to such projects - and understandable that many Orthodox Jews would not view an organization whose priorities include such projects as particularly worthy of their support. One can, of course, choose to accept or reject Jewish religious tradition's attitude toward the propriety of "strengthening the identities" of "LGBT Jews." But to see any group of Jews "myopic" for refusing to jettison their essential convictions evidences a much more severe vision problem. ORTHODOX JEWS do support Jewish charitable causes - and as studies have shown, in considerably greater proportions than other segments of the Jewish community. That should not surprise; tithing one's income is a Jewish religious mandate. So, though, is the responsibility to give one's charity wisely. To an Orthodox Jew, that means donating to individuals in need (homes in Orthodox neighborhoods are regularly and frequently visited by the poor, Orthodox and otherwise, seeking assistance), to social services (of which there are a multitude in Orthodox community - ministering to all Jews, Orthodox or not, and even to non-Jews), and to what we Orthodox regard as the engines of the Jewish future - the day schools, yeshivot and Bais Yaakovs that educate Jewish children - most of which are in dire financial straits. There's no myopia there, only focusing limited resources where they are most urgently needed. And then there's another entire area of Orthodox effort that benefits non-Orthodox Jews, one Steinhardt may not fully appreciate: outreach. It exists in an organized fashion, though a multitude of "kiruv" organizations - like Aish HaTorah , Ohr Somayach and, to name just three of many - and programs like "Partners In Torah," not to mention the dozens of community kollelim that have emerged in recent years across the country. And Orthodox outreach happens, too, in countless "one-on-one" interactions, whenever a Jewishly-uneducated and non-practicing Jew makes the happy choice of letting an Orthodox Jew know he or she is Jewish, and the Orthodox Jew extends an invitation to a Shabbat meal or class. If Steinhardt finds such efforts somehow unimportant or condescending (as his pronouncement about Orthodox unconcern with other Jews would seem to imply), he might do well to consider in a new light something he already knows well: it's important to invest wisely. There are investments, of course, of cash and property, but also investments of knowledge and effort. The Orthodox community doesn't have terribly much of the first kind. If we did, our schools and yeshivot would not be so severely strapped, and fewer Orthodox families would be suffering under crushing debt. What we do have, though, is the second sort, our learning and our love. That's what we have to invest in the non-Orthodox community. And we do. So instead of berating the Orthodox community, Steinhardt might do better to extol it, not to mention support it. With its long history of strong performance, it would be a considerably wiser investment than a hedge fund, and it promises the highest of returns. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.