Sunday, December 23, 2012


Being more prosperous this year than in the past, I opted to increase the amount of my monthly Jewish donations by about a third each.  Prosperity comes at a price, meaning work, fatigue, and some lack of control over my schedule so as we approach the end of the calendar year, what used to be a monthly contribution to some worthy organization had atrophied to two checks written to unique institutions that are on my perennial list.  On returning from vacation, I took out my checkbook and some note cards sent to my by organizations that thought they might get a contribution in return and started began consolidating a very fulfilling project spread over the year into two days.

Of all my private accomplishments, restructuring my approach to Tzedakah gives me the most satisfaction.  My current mechanism now approaches nineteen years but its origins trace to my early days in Delaware, some thirty years, or half my life.  There is no question that Judaism requires generosity, sharing a portion of what is earned or even not earned, as the mandatory half-shekel per person was still required of the poorest among the population.  As an intern, I was subpoenaed to court as an expert witness by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for having taken care of a star witness in murder trial.  As a surprise, the court gave me a $25 check for my testimony, which I tried to give back since my hospital contract specified no outside income for my first year.  The chief recommended I have a nice dinner for my legal ordeal.  Instead I deposited the check and wrote another to the Hillel Foundation of St. Louis which now receives my single largest contribution each year.  Hakaras HaTov remains a core value as well.

While Jewish agencies do valuable work and the people who dedicate themselves to it merit a measure of credit, organizationally they often do not comport themselves in the best way, and for many probably should not have Jewish as the first word in their banner.  It did not take long for the local Federation to get my telephone number and ask for money.  The first solicitation was from a friend, perfectly dignified and honest.  When we spoke about amount, it was far in excess of what I was prepared to give so I offered what seemed more within my means.  He thanked me, did not bargain over amount, and I sent a check for my pledge.  The following year, a new Executive Director arrived, setting up a Young Leadership division to which my wife and I were invited.  It did not take more than a couple of orientation meetings and presentations to realize that the people were much more interested in my professional title and the income it would be expected to bring over time than they were in the intellect that brought it about or any ideas and talents of Judaism that my wife and I or anyone else in the program might possess.  And the machers there were the machers of my synagogue who before long would swoop down and run a Rabbi who I admired out of town.  As part of the program the participants were expected to man the telephones on SuperSunday, the day volunteers go to the phone banks and ask members of the community who are not prima fascie megadonors for their annual pledge.  As novices we were given a card with what they gave last year, a script to read that asked for considerably more than they gave last year, and how to bargain for something in the middle if they balked at the suggested amount.  I put the script aside, following instead the format of the friend who had solicited me the year before.  I knew these people would give something, usually about what they usually give.  I said thank you immediately and made no suggestion of amounts.  When another member of the program called me, the solicitor read from the script.  I found it just as offensive to hear as I would have expected from reading it, told him so and asked him to send me my pledge card, something the trainers said to make every effort to resist.

First impressions count and these guys did not endear themselves to me.  They separated husband and wife, asking each independently for pledges rather than as a family, even though finances are often bundled, including in the script why each has to give as an individual rather than a family if anyone being solicited desired a single family pledge.  As a physician, I got invited to non-kosher brunches with no kosher option at McMansions where en route the police track my car as one not belonging in that neighborhood.  Certificates were distributed to physicians whose only serious connection to Judaism was their income, though I suppose in a religion where one's actions take priority over what one thinks, their generosity is to be properly acknowledged irrespective of background or motivation.  So this remained my own forum for tzedakah, along with they synagogue for fourteen years.  I received a call each year, declined to pledge a specific amount over the phone but promised to send a check after I receive my pledge card which I did promptly.  Some took exception at not knowing the amount but I stood firm.  They can record it as zero if they really needed to know for planning purposes, then when the check arrives they will have a little extra.  While I did not particularly like this organization, its Executive Director became a personal friend from synagogue.  He meant well and eventually insisted that the solicitation be less of a shakedown of small donors.  The real money comes from the machers.  The good will of the public should not be jeopardized over attempts to get another $50 a year from people who already thought they were being fair to the community.  While I long since divested myself of Young Leadership, where attrition was expectedly high, and I often held the movers & shakers in private contempt, I also knew that social agencies needed support, there has to be an Jewish educational system in the community, there are many overseas needs in Israel and the former Soviet Union.  All these are best addressed as pooled funds which are then distributed by grants to individual agencies that carry out the actual work.  The people doing this were annoying but not evil. Over those fourteen years, as my income increased my pledge rose as well.  When my income declined as I went from staff physician to Endocrine Fellow to new solo practitioner, I kept the higher contribution.   But the loyalty never jelled.  Once an identifiable malignant Federation type accruing public honors arrived on the scene and affected me personally, the perspective would change forever.

There is an entry in my personal journal from October 1994 that I would not give to Federation in the future. Apparently by the Jewish Federations of North America analysis, the figure of those solicited who rebuff the solicitation is about 15% nationally.  At the time I was irate over adverse experience.  I shared my thoughts with my wife and we maintained a united front on this.  The pledge call came to my wife and I separately as scheduled in January, requested by a personal friend who I greatly admire.  We politely dropped out for cause, asked to be put on their Do Not Call list which did not happen for another year, declining to elaborate on why when asked so as not to attack a community leader.  The Executive Director, who attended our synagogue as well, came over to me one shabbos shortly thereafter acknowledging our desire to drop out, not challenging it in any way, though I suspect that acceptance would be different if our contribution had another zero or two appended to what we actually give.

So now I have a rather large sum of money to distribute as a religious obligation and no agent to do it for me.  I also have a somewhat hateful, contemptuous view of the Jewish leadership to dispel.  Like most things, it is less the bad apples themselves but the tolerance of the bad apples by the good oranges.  Much the reverse of Sodom which was destroyed not because of evil but because of the paucity of good.  But it was time to move on.  I took my annual pledge, added a little to it, and decided I would distribute one sixth of it every other month.  Included in each contribution would be a note of Jewish values explaining why I found that agency's projects an essential component of Jewish life.  My first contribution went to an organization called the Round Lake Camp.  They had taken out a small ad in the NY Times Magazine inviting Jewish campers who were felt unsuitable for the Ramahs and Galils of the Jewish world.  In a Jewish world that often regarded you as convenient or inconvenient instead of intrinsically important in one's own right, here was an agency that reached out to parents like us who found themselves rejected and isolated.  I sent them a check and a brief note.  They sent me a personal thanks penned to the IRS acknowledgement and later a video tape of their campers having a blast.  Two months later my secretary asked me to take a call from the president of the Jewish aging home.  He had received my note and appreciated the thanks that was conveyed to their staff and volunteers who get a lot more complaints than praise.  And so it went for most of the contributions and accompanying thank you notes.  Agencies big and small.  Camping, Family Service, disaster relief, education.  Since I have a local obligation before world obligations I left the Kutz Home and Family Services as annual constants, including some Biblical, Talmudic or liturgical reference as to why these projects are vital.  Later I added another constant, an organization called Footsteps that serve Haredi young people who wish to partake of other aspects of Hashem's social offerings.  These people through no fault of their own never got the education or earning skills that were made readily available to me.  They are often shunned by their own community when one of the core Judaic principles may be to accept people as you find them and help them develop in their own way.  I have been a permanent beneficiary of two Hillel Foundations that functioned by this principle.  Over the years, influenced by positive feedback from the agencies, my bimonthly donations became monthly donations scheduled on the 20th of each month just as I would pay any other periodic financial obligation.  Sometimes I was late but until this year, never had to bundle contributions to meet an IRS calendar benefit.

Since only three annual donations recur, this project over eighteen years has taken me to every imaginable activity that Jews do for each other and for the world.  Money is gathered to alleviate disasters.  There is an agency called American Jewish World Service that sends emissaries, my daughter among them, to volunteer for basic living development in poverty areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Israeli professors get Nobel Prizes for lifetime efforts.  The Universities that sponsor their work depend on Friends of Technion, Weizmann Institute et. al.  For the Israel Defense Forces to have a form of  USO, they also depend on American Friends.  We have Hillel Foundations and Chabad that allow people not yet absorbed into our culture to enter.  We have a history, a collective memory, that endures through its museums.  And we have members of our community, too bothersome for those who are destined to "make it" and therefore left extrinsic to it, who are served by people of special sensitivity who advocate on their behalf.   There is an extraordinary organization known now as JACS which serves the chemically dependent.  It was intended to be a synagogue branch of Alcoholics Anonymous but rejected by several congregations whose officers and clergy did not want shikkers in their building.  It's prime motivator, Rabbi Twerski, a chasid with a medical degree who is one of the world's pioneers of addiction therapy, has a series of books on self-help and non-medical Jewish thought published primarily by an organization called Artscroll, whose parent organization, the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, frequently gets one of my contributions for translating primary sacred sources so that English speakers can read them.  And there is even a place for some benevolent Tochacha.  From time to time I send a check directly to the Jewish Federations of North America with a brief note of why it goes there rather than to the local agency and a recommendation that they use the resentment that the machers often produce to provide other suitable outlets that keep the victims engaged after they vote with their checkbooks and feet.  There is no end to the good that can be found if you seek it out nor any way that the brief notes of thanks that each receives from me adequately compensates their efforts.  It does compensate me in a very large fashion.  My approach to what Judaism stands for has never been the same.

This year's list:  The Kutz Home, Jewish Family Service of Delaware, Footsteps, American Jewish University in Los Angeles,  Friends of the IDF, American Jewish Committee if I can find their street address which they have conspicuously omitted form their web site to mail the check, Chabad of DelawareAmerican Physicians Fellowship for Medicine in Israel which sponsors Israeli physicians to receive training at American and Canadian Universities, American Friends of The Israel Museum, Masorti Foundation which promotes a Conservative Jewish presence and Jewish pluralism in Israel, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,  and the American Jewish World Service.  And outside the list comes two other substantial contributions:  The Mesorah Heritage Foundation based on its importance and the Hillel Foundation of St. Louis whose Rabbi  left a permanent imprint on what I should be aspiring towards.

Next year's list will undoubtedly differ but the principles will not.  With some effort I will be able to remedy the lapse in timeliness.

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