Judaism has a rich and storied tradition of philanthropy. As people of moral spirit, we venerate acts of charity and personal generosity.
Abraham, the founder of our people, demonstrated his generosity by enthusiastically welcoming three complete strangers into his home, days after undergoing excruciating surgery. Charity and acts of kindness became part of our collective Jewish legacy.
A rabbinic statement cautions us to inspect the Jewish pedigree of a miserly person who doesn’t display sympathy or kindness. If that person were Jewish, he/she would, obviously, be more generous and open-hearted. Charity and benevolence lie at the heart of Jewish identity.
In addition to providing charity for individuals, Jews have always donated to large and important projects. Our philanthropic tradition began in the desert as we assembled the tabernacle. God had already performed numerous jaw-dropping miracles and could easily have deposited a heavenly temple in the desert. However, He preferred that we donate the various materials and personally perform the labor necessary for His temple.
Work and labor were ennobling and purged us of the moral decay caused by the worship of the golden calf. More importantly, though, donating to this great cause would transform us into agents of this divine project, granting us personal shares in the house of God. Through our philanthropy, we become more invested in important projects and idealistic missions. Philanthropy grants personal agency.
Ironically, our long-suffering exile reinforced the centrality of Jewish philanthropy. Constantly living as outsiders in foreign lands, we rarely received local governmental funding for religious services. We were forced to provide our own communal and religious needs through internal contributions.
This co-dependency created tighter and more durable communities and, additionally, networked Jews across the Diaspora, as wealthier communities often supported poorer ones. As Jewish donations crisscrossed the globe, scattered Jewish communities remained united.
The ‘haluka’ system
Gradually, as we began to return to our homeland, philanthropy was channeled to Jews living under the harsh and unforgiving financial conditions in Palestine. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish immigration to Israel slowly expanded, and a process of financial support known as the haluka system became institutionalized. In almost every European city, funds were collected by Jews for the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish population, generally referring to Jews who immigrated prior to the 1880s) who had little financial means to support themselves.
The haluka system figured prominently in the notorious incarceration of the first Lubavicther Rebbe. Living in Liadi, in White Russia, Rabbi Shneur Zalman supervised the collection and allocation of funds to hassidic Jews in Palestine, which was then governed by the Ottoman Empire, the sworn enemies of the Russian monarchy.
He was arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason for transferring currency to an enemy of the state. These charges were exaggerated by opponents of hassidism who incited local Russian authorities against the rabbi. After 53 days of imprisonment, on the 19th of Kislev, the hassidic rabbi was liberated from prison, transforming this day into a major holiday for hassidim of every stripe. For 150 years, beginning with the late 18th century, the haluka system was an integral part of Jewish communal life in Europe.
This distribution system became far more complicated in the 20th century, in the aftermath of the financial collapse during World War I. Financially challenged Eastern European Jewish communities struggled to support an ever-growing Jewish population in Palestine.
The haluka system was first conceived in the late 18th century to support select Jewish pilgrims who abandoned the “good life” in Europe for a noble life of holiness and hardship in the land of our ancestors. By the early 20th century, the Jewish population in Palestine had expanded, and not everyone was living a holy life worthy of financial support from mother communities in Europe. The haluka allocations slowly dwindled, coming to a complete and abrupt halt during the Holocaust.
In the desert, Jewish philanthropy had raised a tabernacle for God. Thousands of years later, in the lead-up to the modern state, Jewish philanthropy provided a platform for the first returning Jews. Jewish philanthropy would have a further say in shaping Jewish destiny.
Philanthropy and modern Israel
As the State of Israel was declared, Jewish philanthropy quickly shifted gears. A newly formed nation, financially fledgling and militarily challenged, required substantial material support. Though much of this support flowed from foreign governments, much came from personal philanthropic donations of Jews pouring in from across the globe.
The 20th century witnessed the greatest philanthropic project in the history of mankind. Jewish money helped build our national infrastructure, advance our communities, and restore our natural landscapes and forests. Jewish return to Israel became a global Jewish project.
Aliyah has always been a complex equation. Those who live in Israel don’t always appreciate how difficult it can be. Not everyone can pick up and immediately relocate to Israel. Jewish philanthropy provided a means for Jews who don’t yet live in our national homeland to still be part of this grand project of national regeneration.
We wait for every Jew to return home; but until that day, and given the fact that not every Jew has returned, we acknowledge the power of philanthropy to allow membership in this lofty historical project.
Newark, Amsterdam and Gush
I teach in a hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion that has a majestic campus, with marble floors and a vaulted ceiling in a regal beit midrash (study hall). The campus is surrounded by rolling gardens and a stately waterfall at its entrance. Aesthetically outstanding, its beauty reflects the grandeur of religion.
Our beautiful campus was constructed in the mid-1970s with funds donated by the Jewish community of Newark, which had recently closed its doors. After closing its synagogue, the community donated its leftover funds to a fledgling yeshiva in the West Bank operating out of an old Jordanian army barrack. Often, as I stroll through the magnificent campus financed by an American Jewish community of the previous generation, I reflect upon the marvel of Jewish continuity.
Additionally, our spacious library contains a section of older books donated by a 400-year-old Dutch Jewish community that was unable to survive after the Holocaust. As I leaf through the 500-year-old religious books in this collection, I ponder the different roads of Jewish history. All roads lead home. Modern Jewish philanthropy on behalf of the State of Israel has empowered Jews across the globe to be part of the reawakening of history. It has also preserved the memories of past Jewish communities in our ancient homeland.
Partners have a voice
This partnership between Israel and Jews who live outside our country raises a very delicate and complex question. Should non-Israeli Jews have a voice in determining Israeli politics and policies? Many Israelis chafe at the notion that our democracy should be compromised by the opinions of non-voting and non-army-serving people.
But that is just the point: We aren’t a pure-blooded democracy but a historical project built upon democratic foundations. Every Jew is expected to participate in this project, and every Jew has the right to voice his/her opinion about our joint project.
It is certainly true that non-residents may not appreciate the more nuanced factors that should govern our policy decisions. For non-Israelis, issues in Israel always seem more black and white and more binary.
Residents of Israel have a finer appreciation of the complexities of our situation, and their positions tend to be more balanced and judicious. However, fundamentally, every Jew is part of this process, and their philanthropy gives them a seat at the table of history. We are in this together.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has rabbinic ordination and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.