When I was a girl, my mother told me I must always wear clean panties in case I got hit by a bus. If my skirt flared up, what would the condition of my underwear say about me as a person? About my family? About the Jewish people?
I’ve been yoked to her vehicular litmus test ever since, and not just for underwear. For instance, suppose I got hit by a bus and my checkbook fell out of my purse. What would my check stubs say about me and my values? Had I been spending too much on clothes or restaurants and not enough on tzedakah (Hebrew for charity and justice)? Why did I donate to some organizations and not others? Could I have given more?
These thoughts were triggered by a phone call from a friend who was being bombarded by charities pleading for year-end contributions. She wanted to give what she could, but needed advice. Was I willing to share, not how much I give, but how I decide what groups to support? At first, her request felt invasive, as if my philanthropy were as private as my underwear. I said I would call her back. Then I started interrogating myself. How do I make those decisions? Do I have a strategy? Do I donate with conscious intention or impetuously?
My use of the first person here reflects the division of labor in my long marriage. Though my husband and I have always pooled our earnings and filed a joint tax return (he’s a retired lawyer; I’m a working writer), he earned the lion’s share of our income, and I took on the responsibility of distributing as much as we could afford to give.
I dug out last year’s tax files and reviewed my check stubs. In 2021, I contributed to 41 separate organizations on behalf of both of us. For a couple with progressive politics, our list was pretty predictable. I gave money to our synagogue, two symphony orchestras, two nonprofit theater companies, National Public Radio, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, cancer research and a bunch of smaller groups working to protect the environment and eradicate poverty, hunger, racism and homophobia.
Nobody does giving better than the Jewish people.
Turns out I do have some strategies. Rather than give all our charitable dollars to one organization—which might earn us a plaque or a testimonial lunch—I give small checks to a wide array of projects on the theory that increasing their cadre of givers will add clout to their lobbying efforts. For women’s groups, I’ve come to understand that, as a founding editor of Ms. magazine, I might actually help them raise more money by being on their donor list. Generally, I give to groups, foundations and publications that advance the agendas of the mainstream women’s movement, Jewish feminism, a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and projects that further equality and democracy in Israel and Palestine. I honor my husband’s priorities too, contributing regularly to his college, law school and the Appleseed Foundation, a legal reform group he cofounded 30 years ago that works for equity in the New York City school system. No mystery there; to learn our values, or anyone’s, just follow the money.
I once asked a wealthy woman how she makes her philanthropic decisions. She said, “I give to what makes me cry.” From the evidence in my checkbook, I realized that I give to what makes me hope: Groups that struggle for justice. People who change other people’s lives for the better.
I called my friend back and told her my findings. But I didn’t tell her the whole truth: That I think government should do what most of these charities are doing. That we shouldn’t have to hold bake sales to make society function for human good. That I sometimes feel guilty for writing checks while others do the work, for attending galas while others are suffering. I didn’t confess that sometimes I donated to a cause because an important colleague was its honoree or the absence of our name on a donor list would embarrass me.
The Jewish philanthropic scene presents endless possibilities for ridicule. Consider the guy who gets marooned on a desert island and doesn’t even carve HELP in the sand. He just sits under a palm tree and waits. Asked what made him so confident about being rescued, he says, “I knew they’d come looking for me. I forgot to pay my pledge to the UJA.” As one wag put it, the success of Jews in the 20th century became clear when jokes about fundraising replaced jokes about schnorrers, or beggars.
Behind the laughs and caricatures is a tacit recognition—dare I say envy—of our people’s remarkable record of supporting causes both Jewish and secular far in excess of our numbers. Nobody does giving better than we do. All the more reason why if we want to repair this broken world, our donations should be mindfully made.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s just-published book is SHANDA: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy.
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