Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Reform Charity 1

I want to spend some time discussing Reform Judaism. I begin, since we are talking reform, with praise, and I’ll end with some critical thoughts.

Rabbi Selig Starr, a gadol from the early days of American Orthodoxy, used to say: Remember to embrace equally all the three fundamentally Jewish loves: Ahavas(love of) Hashem, Ahavas Torah and Avahas Yisroel (greater Israel). Remember not to minimize any one of them in anyway whatsoever. I would describe American Judaism as made up of three kinds of participants: daveners (love of Hashem,God), learners (love of Torah ) and machers (love of fellow Jews). These participants are found in all the denominations. I have already had occasion to talk about those whose primary relation to Jewish life is learning in my posts on Geeks and on kolel people (6/28, 6/30,7/05.) Today I want to concentrate on a subset of machers, Jews who work on behalf of the Jewish community, the upper tier of the Reform movement.

Some of the most important work of the Reform movement continues with or without temple attendance. Reform Jews are very active in the Jewish United Fund campaigns. The JUF raises close to $800 million annually. The JUF campaigns are frequently just the tip of the iceberg of the charitable and communal activities of Reform Jews. Reform Jews have a special sense of public responsibility for the entire Jewish community. They receive very little in return. Their children don’t attend day school, they don’t live in Israel or Russia and in general they have little need for Jewish social services. They give because they are concerned with klal yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole. The Orthodox, by contrast receive far more from the JUF as a community than they contribute. The bulk of Orthodox charity is to their own community. I say this as a fact, and not as a criticism. Reform Jews receive religious sustenance from these caring and giving impulses. Today, not necessarily 100 years ago, the Reformers are one of the least narcissistic groups in American Jewish life. (see my posts of 10/22, 10/23) The pintele yid, the core spark of spirituality in the soul of the Reform Jew draws on the attribute of chesed or loving kindness and motivates him to give back. As they modestly put it, they have this need to give back to the community.

Have you ever seen a society matron, a woman who does lunch, three weeks before “her” charity ball? These women are driven, motivated, and maniacal that the affair should be a huge success. No detail is too small to be left unattended. Where do they derive this energy, interest and drive? What is it to them if the floral centerpiece is a bit clichéd? After the first two martinis who will notice or care? They are driven because the ball is their ball, they are on the board or committee, they take their responsibility seriously .The voluntary nature of their work creates for them an even greater sense of concern than if they were giving the party as part of their job or because they wanted to entertain their friends. You need a tradition to act this way. You have to see this in your family or in your peer group. This tradition is nourished and developed by the many high bourgeois families that are part of the reform movement.

I think it is correct to say that in many respects reform and secular Jews are not very different. In general people drift from one group to the other. A family joins a temple when the children are young, thinking it would be a good idea for the children .As the children grow up they become less active, and drop their temple membership. At that point the statistical measures count such a family as secular. They are the exact same people. All that has occurred is that they have tired of paying a few thousand a year for a membership in a temple whose services they don’t attend. The major difference between secular and reform Jews is not in frequency of synagogue attendance, or in the level of Jewish scholarship or culture or even in the rate of intermarriage. The main difference, in my opinion is the sense of responsibility they feel for the Jewish people, and their willingness to contribute time and money on their behalf.

I want to give one small example of the current work of Reform Jews. The city of Chicago undertook the development of this magnificent space downtown called Millennium Park. There was Federal funding, but there were cost overruns and there was a need for private funding. Rich individuals and some corporations stepped up to the plate, and their names are displayed at the entrance of the park. I once made a quick calculation, and according to my estimates 40% of the hundreds of millions of dollars came from Jewish sources, and most if not all of those donors were Reform Jews. There is this powerful tradition of responsibility to their community that has been the trademark of the Reform movement for 200 years. These people are not particularly daveners and shul goers. They are not scholars. They are powerhouses of charity and public service. A big tent theology of the Jewish people ought to recognize and value this sort of chesed (beneficence), whether or not the donors keep mitzvoth.

(to be continued)

31 Comments:

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Just Asking said...

How much of Reform charity do you feel stems from "guilt" of not adhering to Mitzvos?

How many Reform recognize that the only group that will perpetuate the Jewish People are the Orthodox?

 
At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how is donating for millenium park considered giving back to the jewish community?

 
At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just Asking--
I often hear this kind of thing from frum Jews (and I don't know if you are one, and so I won't assume). i would say many, if not most, non-Orthodox Jews are not Orthodox because they have serious ideological problems with Orthodoxy. Thus, by definition, such people do not feel "guilt" over not observing certain of the mitzvot. As for perpetuating the Jewish people, as long as people identify as Jews of any stripe, there will be a "Jewish People."

 
At 2:19 PM, Anonymous quietann said...

JA --

Attitudes like yours are one reason that many Reform Jews are reconsidering their donations to Jewish charities. My in-laws, who are wealthy, have switched a lot of their gifts recently -- and my MIL counts herself as (not-very-observant) Orthodox! I am unaffiliated (probably closest to LW Conservative if you have to "box" me) and I am very, very careful to avoid giving to charities that maintain Orthodox Jews are "better" than other Jews.

 
At 2:22 PM, Anonymous just asking said...

"i would say many, if not most, non-Orthodox Jews are not Orthodox because they have serious ideological problems with Orthodoxy. "

I would say that it is because they were, for the most part, not brought up Orthodox. Hence, they are not rejecting Orthodoxy, they just see no reason to add on restrictions. Yet internally they may feel that the Orthodox are closer to the real Judaism.

Furthermore, allowing interfaith marriages and not requiring any real semblance of observance has reduced the numbers of the Reform and will continue until they recognize that Judaism without ritual will not last.

 
At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen a society matron, a woman who does lunch, three weeks before “her” charity ball? These women are driven, motivated, and maniacal that the affair should be a huge success. No detail is too small to be left unattended.

Yes we read "Mrs. Dalloway"

while everyone is quick to jump on Just Asking, the fact is that B"H the philanthropy exists and there is certainly a hakaras hatov for it. But it remains to be seen whether such self styled "tikkun olam" and underwriting all things cultural (drum beating, write your own midrash, mishneh, torah workshops etc.)will ultimately serve to perpetuate Torah Judaism.
BTW I've become a fan since I saw a blurb about you on "Hetterim" - your pieces are typically thought out and well composed - keep bloggin'

 
At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yet internally they may feel that the Orthodox are closer to the real Judaism. "

You are making an assumption. May I respectfully suggest you speak with some Reform Jews about their attitudes rather than assuming what they feel? You may be surprised.

 
At 8:34 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Just Asking…In answer to your first question I would say that according to the NJPS OF 2001, 17% of current Reform Jews were raised Orthodox. Some percentage of the 17% indeed may have some second thoughts concerning their behavior; and some of those feeling guilty, give charity to compensate. So I would say maybe 5%, plus or minus 3%. The others are either RFB’s (Reform from birth) or converts or of patrilineal descent or don’t feel guilty or don’t give charity because of their guilt.

In answer to your second question, I assume the demographic facts concerning birth rates etc. are widely known. So I would say many Reform Jews recognize the Orthodox as the most demographically dynamic denomination. The hope of the Reform movement is this: Every Orthodox and Conservative child born is a potential member. The Reform can live off the crumbs of the Orthodox and Conservative table for quite some time. In addition they are active in recruiting new members in the religious marketplace.

Actual Reform membership has not declined so far.

Anonymous 1…Great question. I will try to answer objection in my next post.

anonymous 5:19...I don't think Reform Judaism is trying to perpetuate what I think you mean by Torah Judaism.They have other goals.Thank's for the compliment.

 
At 12:28 AM, Anonymous Theo said...

There is no way that 17 percent of reform jews were brought up orthodox. That's impossible, though I'm sure you are quoting the NJPS survey accurately.

 
At 1:32 AM, Blogger Neil Harris said...

"The Orthodox, by contrast receive far more from the JUF as a community than they contribute. The bulk of Orthodox charity is to their own community." Before moving to Chicago I worked very closely with the local Jewish Fed in another city. Your statement was, rightfully, the biggest complaint.
In some ways we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters.

 
At 4:37 AM, Anonymous anon said...

Oh, how i admire the reform jew who donates so many millions of dollars for an artificial tear drop for people to gape at....
How is this representative of a desire to give back to the jewish community again?

 
At 9:29 AM, Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

The survey says that 17% of Reform Jews were brought up Orthodox. Many of those 17% were probably brought up in the 1950s and 1960s when the ideological lines were not drawn so sharply. The number of Jews who considered themnselves Orthodox soley because they davened at an Orthodox shul, regardless of whether they were shomrei mitzvot was much higher in those days. One reason for the migration was that those 'Orthodox in name only' Jews came to feel less comfortable in Orthodox shuls and moved along.

I think most O educators and rabbonim are making a big mistake in their attitude towards the non-O community. Most of the kids I meet today see only two alternatives in their life - Orthdoxy or secularism (whether agnostic, atheist, or uncaring). In order to keep young Os in the fold, the O educational community is willing to accept a higher risk of their abandoning any sort of Jewish practice at all.

 
At 10:01 AM, Anonymous Michael M. said...

You assert, "Reform Jews have a special sense of public responsibility for the entire Jewish community."

I agree that bashing reform Jews is counter productive, and I agree they, to the extent we can speak collectively, have many fine attributes. But I think you are speaking of a by-gone era. Today's reform Jews are very likely not even Jews to begin with. The remaining Jews by birth are darn near exclusively female. Their knowledge of Judaisim is abysmal, shockingly so. Their connection to the classical religion of Judaism is extremely tenuous, and thus I must disagree with your well-meaning, but inaccuate charachterization.

The Reform movement today has come to mean = American liberalism. Not less chumrahs, not less Yiddish - just liberalism. Whatever the current liberal cause is, that's Reform. Today homosexuals, yesterday blacks, and tomorrow lord know what. (Fifty years ago it was coal miners.)

I think these liberal instincts bespeak a genuine desire to do good for the world, part and parcel of the Torah's mandate for Jews. Here the Reform Jews far outshine their Orthodox counterparts. However, for some reason they have come to believe their mission of "tikkun olam" can only be accomplished through government, and specifically democrats. Were they to focus their considerable energies on private do-goodiing, like the Christian churches, they would enjoy far more goodwill from other Jews, and other people generally.

 
At 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your critisism should have been included in this post. It is a well known ikar, that if you praise those who reject our Torah, you MUSt mention the fact. You cannot prasie without critisism those who reject that even one mitzvah was not given by God.

 
At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

One can certainly disagree with R theology on many issues, especially as to what we call Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim. Yet, we should be hesitant in dismissing the roles of individual R Jews as enormous Baalei Tzedakah. In fact, it is well known that many are more open to individual discussions re Torah such as Thomas Tisch-who learns with R N Scherman and Mort Zuckerman who wrote an article about a day he spent learning in Lakewood which he viewed as surpassing Harvard Law School.

 
At 12:03 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Anon4:37…I said they had a desire to give back to the community, Sometimes this means the Jewish community, sometimes the more general community and in many instances more general concerns like fighting cancer,etc. I provide a justification for this attitude tomorrow

Larry Lennhoff…I agree with your comments, though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the Orthodox revival might at some time peak, begin to reverse in the other direction. Reform would pick up another windfall. It happened this way from 1800 to 1960

michael m…I was very specific in saying I was dealing with the upper tier of the Reform community, occurring outside the framework of temples. In general I agree with the thrust of your remarks about the relationship of Reform and liberalism. I will make the same pt. next week. Your point can be extended… Tikun Haolam would be more effective if the Reform could find common projects if not with the Evangelicals at least with the Methodists and Presbyterians. Many mainline churches have a theological idea of ’service’ which could be easily welded to Reform ideas. What would be so terrible, as they say, if Reform kids spent a summer in Costa Rica in partnership with others doing some good?

 
At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Were they to focus their considerable energies on private do-goodiing, like the Christian churches, they would enjoy far more goodwill from other Jews, and other people generally."

Which accomplishes absolutely nothing in terms of fixing the systemic reasons for society's ills, and is a near-insignificant drop in the bucket in terms of helping real people on the ground.

Not to mention, if there's anything to learn from the evangelicals and other right-wingers, it's that the public arena is the ONLY place to accomplish one's "messianic" goals. Although maybe if the evangelicals/RWers restricted their activities to the private sector, they'd earn more good-will. A suggestion at which they would rightfully guffaw.

EJ, while I think the quality of your blog is still high, I feel like you've attracted some unsavory elements to your comments section (perhaps by having been advertised on hirhurim); I wish you luck in figuring out how to maintain a high level of respectful conversation in light of this. Comments like JA's and Anon 11:33AM's very much detract from the important ideas presented in your posts.

 
At 12:23 PM, Anonymous just asking said...

If someone disagrees with your approach, or asks some questions, does that label them "unsavory"?

and for the record, I was here long before Hirhurim's advertisement.

 
At 12:29 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 11:33...everyone knows Reform Jews do not keep many mitzvoth of the Torah and I say so explicitly in the last sentence. If you are asking me to criticize Reform for such a lack it’s like this: I believe my primary task is analysis, appreciation and understanding of my fellow Jews including the right wing of charedi life from within the framework of each group. I discussed this earlier in my posts on empathy, chizuk and other places as well. In my posts on intermarriage, I take non-observance as a given and try to find other solutions. There are no shortages of very good Jews who are willing and feel obligated to condemn Reform.

My pt. about beginning with praise and ending with criticism was a Talmudic pt. As you know, traditionally it’s the other way around, but since we’re talking Reform...I hope you liked my joke.

 
At 3:18 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anon.12:03...If I understand your comment it is that tikun olam at the private level is a drop in the bucket . The Reform has been on your view correct on focusing on govt. intervention. A few pts. They are not contradictory and for many young people personal involvement in organizations like Habitat for Humanity are very worthwhile. Govt. foreign aid programs have been largely ineffectual as I am sure you are aware of. If not, I suggest you read William Easterly’s books. Evangelicals are in favor of the govt. intervening domestically to bring about social change, but in general are skeptical of anything but their own missions abroad. The Reform Movement ought to debate the issue of the optimal path strategy it should utilize to achieve positive global change. It might do some good.

 
At 10:01 PM, Anonymous quietann said...

EJ --

You might be interested in the following article. Apparently in the Boston area, Reform Jews are doing a much better job of "staying Jewish" than elsewhere in the country, WRT intermarriage, raising children as Jews etc.

http://www.jewishledger.com/articles/2006/11/15/news/news08.txt

(I am in the Boston area but as I have stated, unaffiliated. I could easily walk to the local Reform temple on Shabbos, but it's primarily oriented to families with children, which is not my demographic.)

 
At 11:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JA said: "If someone disagrees with your approach, or asks some questions, does that label them "unsavory"?"

No, the triumphalism inherent in your second "question" was unsavory, as is the "when did you stop beating your wife" nature of the question.

EJ, my comment about the focus of involvement for social change (God I hate that phrase) was directed at michael m. I agree with you, but want to address the following: "They [pressing for systemic change and doing individual good works -- ANON] are not contradictory and for many young people personal involvement in organizations like Habitat for Humanity are very worthwhile."

First of all, it depends on the organization, and in fact I know of at least one city in which a community organization was trying to build housing and Habitat got in their way. But, more to the point, while you're right that they aren't _necessarily_ contradictory, often people feel "yotzei" by doing these one-shot and/or non-systemic "tikkun olam" (blech) projects, and utterly fail to take any steps in building power to make real change. _That's_ when it gets problematic, since the resource output (time, energy, etc.) on a tikkun olam projects gets instant gratification and immediate "results" whereas that same output put into a (good) social change program can accomplish much, much more, but requires patience to see the effects. And I am talking about domestic issues -- all the Darfur stuff going on in the Jewish community frustrates me because none of the organizations, including AJWS, have ANY clue _what_ they want to accomplish with all the rallies, etc., and even less of an idea _how_ to accomplish it.

 
At 11:55 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous11:24...If you want me to sign on to the thesis that working for structural change domestically in the direction of greater fairness and decency would accomplish in general more than individual acts of kindness, I very much would like to agree. I have tried to believe this all my life, and yet I have seen all such movements fail to a point where we have greater inequality than ever before. At the same time individual acts of charity and decency, especially in the area of civil rights and protection of minorities has accomplished a great deal. Also watching the system of Orthodox charities, the gemachs, etc. work in such an effective way without any general structural changes in the society at large has shaken my earlier confidence.

 
At 4:00 PM, Anonymous michael m. said...

Anonymous 12:03 - You are a classic liberal: "free speech for me, but not for thee". Anyone who differs with your opinion, you deem unsavory, not realizing that the other feller could say the same about you. So much for the vaunted "pluralism" of liberals.

You claim private good is a drop in the bucket compared to the good government can do. What nonsense. Government has been throwing trillions of dollars over the ghetto walls for decades, and it's accomplished nothing. Anyone who's made it out using help ( as opposed to on merit) has received it from private individuals and organizations.

The fact is, Reform has wedded itself to modern liberalism, a close cousin of socialism. As socialism went, so will go liberalism, and it will sweep away the Reform movement with it. I say that not in triumphalism, not in sadness, but as a neutral prediction.

 
At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anonymous 12:03 - You are a classic liberal: "free speech for me, but not for thee". Anyone who differs with your opinion, you deem unsavory, not realizing that the other feller could say the same about you. So much for the vaunted "pluralism" of liberals."

Of course he could say the same thing about me. Pluralism is only one of my many values. If I put that one value ahead of all others all the time, then I would be a fool and/or my behaviors would look very strange indeed. Those who vaunt one value over others indeed come out looking hypocritical. My point to EJ was that it is difficult to have fruitful discussion about contentious issues with those who present demands or questions that suggest minds already made up. Not that such is impossible or even undesirable, just expensive in terms of resources expended, particularly if that's not one's project. (Also, I wasn't suggesting EJ censor anyone, merely consider how best to use his limited resources.)

How you got the idea that I'm a liberal is mystifying to me; in fact, what I did was decry a particular set of tactics ("do-gooding") that I feel often hamper the accomplishment of one's goals, a tactic that "liberals" tend to vaunt.

As to the other point, I never suggested throwing government money at anything; indeed, government sucks. My point was that willy-nilly throwing resources (time, money, etc.) at problems in general sucks when you have no overall strategy for figuring out what you're trying to accomplish beyond putting a few bandaids on some truly gaping wounds; this lack of strategy is what I decry about do-gooders.

What I was suggesting was social change, a very different animal. Sometimes social change needs to involve government because laws are unjust/not meeting the needs of the people, and therefore government, who make and enforce those laws, needs to be challenged. Other times, perhaps even most other times, it is others (corporations, landlords, ineffectual private social services organizations) with power who need to be acted upon.

EJ wrote: "I have tried to believe this all my life, and yet I have seen all such movements fail to a point where we have greater inequality than ever before."

I suggest you check out the Industrial Areas Foundation and its principles of community organizing; examine its track record and consider its methods. I think you're probably right that grand movements fail -- what I like about IAF is that it's about small, local communities and building powerful relationships. The question will be whether they can ever build the power to act on issues of broader scope.

"At the same time individual acts of charity and decency, especially in the area of civil rights and protection of minorities has accomplished a great deal."

With all due respect, I don't understand on what you're basing this opinion. The civil rights _movement_, at least at its core, was a very disciplined group of people who knew what they wanted and tested and adjusted their tactics to get it. Rosa Parks wasn't some innocent old lady on a bus; she had trained for that moment. No amount of do-gooding would have exercised the power needed to make this systemic change.

 
At 7:21 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 6:48...I understand that civil rights legislation required a disciplined cadre. My point is that what made the difference after the legislation in the areas of race and other discriminations was the decency of people willing to treat others with courtesy and civility. It includes the willingness of parents including many liberal Jews to send their children to racially integrated schools even if such schools are not as safe as private schools. It's the willingness of individuals to consider people innocent even if they come from a group that is problematic in some way. Just look at the way America dealt with the AIDS issue, the decency toward Arab Americans since 9/11 and so on.

 
At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Govt. foreign aid programs have been largely ineffectual as I am sure you are aware of. If not, I suggest you read William Easterly’s books"

Not to mention Lord Peter Bauer z"l if you want to stay within the tribe so to speak

 
At 3:10 AM, Blogger TM (Jewlicious) said...

Whatever one thinks of the Reform movement, they have become an umbrella for many Jews who have no other place in Jewish society. Those who don't know Hebrew too well or at all; those who have intermarried; those who are homosexual; those who feel connected to Judaism but reject religious strictures; those who don't know enough to teach their kids (or themselves); those who reject other movements' closed minds; those who have Jewish fathers but non-Jewish mothers (or Jewish mothers who were converted by non-Orthodox rabbis); etc.

It happens to be a vibrant movement that may stress "tikkun olam" as a virtue and a mission that often overwhelms other activities, but they continue to celebrate Jewish traditions and holidays.

I'm not sure what any of this has to do with contributing to a broader civic project. Take a look at this list of the 50 largest philanthropists in the US. It clearly shows a large number of Jews, certainly far greater proportional to our numbers in the US, and I would venture that many of these folks are Conservative or unaffiliated Jews.

http://www.businessweek.com/pdfs/2004/0448_philan.pdf

 
At 3:11 AM, Blogger TM (Jewlicious) said...

I will try that link again.

http://www.businessweek.com/pdfs/2004/0448_philan.pdf

 
At 3:12 AM, Blogger TM (Jewlicious) said...

http://www.businessweek.com/

pdfs/2004/0448_philan.pdf


Join the two parts in your browser.

 
At 12:43 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

tm...I agree 100% with your description of Reform. Very well said.
I believe that the concept of 'tikun haolam' has permeated Conservative and other non-Reform circles, vague as the idea may be. I am using Reform as the center of a larger space of benevolent but non-observant Jews. My intuition is that the precedent for this type of big time charity goes back to the haute bourgeois (German) Jewish families of 75-125 years ago.

 

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