Saturday, February 1, 2014

Parashat Terumah: Withholding Our Gifts

So, did you get the phone call on Sunday? You know which one I’m talking about—the Super Sunday phone call. This Sunday may be the Superbowl, but last Sunday was Jewish Federation’s biggest solicitation day, the day when we are asked to give of ourselves—especially our treasure—to help sustain the Jewish community. 

Super Sunday reminded me of the second hardest conversation I had with my old boss, rabbi Elliot Strom. When I was a relatively new assistant rabbi my congregation needed to go into capital campaign to help pay off the mortgage, which I don’t have to tell you is the least sexy fundraising cause ever, except maybe general expenses. No new building, no endowed chair or staffer, no new initiative; just help us pay for what already is. I had been in every meeting, I saw all the spreadsheets, had done the solicitation prep with then-Bloom Consulting, and I was kind of excited to get the experience of doing a campaign and help support my synagogue. And then Elliot sat down with me for one of our regular breakfast meetings, and told me that Marisa and I had to commit to the campaign ourselves. He told me about what he and his wife Susan would be contributing, and how he felt that all the staff, especially clergy, needed to contribute meaningfully.
So here I am, at age 28, getting The Schnorr. And I was DEEPLY uncomfortable. Not because of the costs—yeah, we were young, but the number (which we honored in full before we left) wasn’t going to break us. Not because of the need—I thought of myself as a charitable guy, and got the importance of tzedakah. But the idea that my boss was asking me to give back to the synagogue made me prickly. 

Does this sound familiar? I know a lot of Jews who are uncomfortable talking about charitable giving, at least to the Jewish community. We talk about our gifts to Heifer International, to B Positive, to St. Baldrick’s, to our political parties and candidates (though we get a little tired of the robo-calls), but somehow, we get all of a dither when we talk about giving within the community—to the JCC, Federation, the synagogue, United Jewish Appeal, whatever. And we really get worked up when it isn’t just a theoretical conversation, but someone approaches us. “The only time the synagogue (or Jewish Family Services, or the Kutz Home) ever reaches out to me is when they want to ask me for money!” Never mind the letters and phone calls and personal contacts. Never mind that’s really the only time we hear from Public radio, say, or the museum. That’s the perception, though it’s articulated by a very small and vocal handful. Somehow, this voluntary gift to the Jewish community for many doesn’t feel so voluntary. It doesn’t matter if we talk to professional fundraisers or our fellow community members, whether we’re asked to give $18 or $1800, whether it’s for education or maintenance or Israel or a special project at home. If it’s the Jewish community asking for money, many of us hyperventilate. 

This week we read parashat terumah, where God asks Israel to bring freewill offerings—terumah-- of Gold, precious gems, expensive fibers, in order to build the Mishkan.  God says, “make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” And we’re told later on, in parashat Pekudei, that they collected so much Moses actually had to turn down donations. All this only a few weeks after Liberation from slavery! And every Jewish professional and board member has a good laugh! Who ever heard of such a thing?
I think there is frequently a disconnect when it comes to giving. As Jordan Cohen writes: “Anyone who has ever sat on a synagogue [board], school [board] or other non-profit board knows how important fund-raising is. Without that kind of important support, these significant institutions would not exist. But they also know how difficult it is. Convincing people to part with their hard-earned funds to support even a worthy institution is, understandably, not easy.” I think some of that disconnect is that we expect the Temple—this holy place—to be above that. We don’t want to associate our coming to synagogue with money. And how many times I’ve heard stories of pain from people, either feeling (or being told) that they couldn’t be a part of the congregation due to finances, or older congregants who remember aliyahs and honors auctioned off in the middle of services! Contrast this with many churches, where folks bring their pledge envelope on Sunday and deposit it each week. A friend who’s a deacon told me that about his church and I nearly fell out of my chair. What do you mean you bring it in on Sunday and give it where everyone can see?! When I explained our system of making an annual commitment and sending a bill, he nearly fell out of his chair! You bill people?! 

And, of course, too often the language that we use to describe our commitment to the synagogue in particular is transactional, rather than transformative. We talk about what we’re paying for—programs, services, education, life cycle. When we give gifts to our friends or family, we’re not thinking about what we’re going to get out of it (well, at least I hope!). We give that card, that dinner, that snarky t-shirt, that bauble because of our relationship with the person; it brings each of us pleasure to share freely with one another. Why shouldn’t it be that way with the synagogue? 

God asks, and the people give freely. They give to create sacred space, to put their wealth toward the use of the community. Please note, they’re not making a house for God—it doesn’t say, “make for me a sanctuary so I can dwell in it”, but rather, ‘so I can dwell among them!’ Okay, well, if we’re not building a house for God, what are we doing? 

What we’re doing is using our wealth—be it limited or unfathomable—for sacred ends. When we’re asked to make a commitment, when we share what we have, we’re sustaining community, but also allowing for sacred work to happen, and happen well. They give because that’s the relationship. And, dare I say it? it gives us a chance to think about how we’re using our treasure, not just from a practical budgeting perspective, but from a sacred perspective as well. Is my wealth being used to make this world a more sacred place? 

 I’m sure some of you are uncomfortable by this talk of money, giving, and the Jewish community. And some of you maybe even steaming that I brought it up at all, and on Shabbat no less. And others are wondering why this is even a big deal at all. To be honest, I’m uncomfortable too, but we need to talk about it and think about it. Because if we take seriously the idea that all we do has sacred purpose, has meaning, has import, then that must extend to our wealth as well. Only when we let God into every aspect of our lives, then God can fully dwell among us.


  1. Promised you a response to this most important D'var Torah.

    There is a midrash usually brought out on Purim that if you want to evoke candor, what somebody really thinks, get him inebriated (coso), ask him for money (kiso) and irritate him (ca-aso). We do all three on Purim and while we wear masks, we really do the things that remove the masks.

    So it is with fundraising in general and Federation in particular. According to some reliable sources, while the Federation campaigns have kept pace with community needs if dollars are the metric, the number of donors has been roughly halved since about 1990. In 1994 I put myself on the Do Not Call list after getting shaken down and writing checks in a grudging way. The demarcation point had been a rather serious betrayal inflicted on a my wife and child at their vulnerable time by a macher on whom we had a measure of dependence at the time. But it was the thirteen years experience that preceeded that which gutted any sense on my part that the uncritical support of Jewish institutions far and near had sanctity as its basis. Those solicitations continued for a couple more years, admittedly more dignified than they had been, but I was both resolute and polite in making it clear that I had departed for cause.

    Fast forward nineteen years now. From the time I left, Super Sunday 1995, there was still a pushka to be distributed, initially my annual pledge distributed on alternate months with each of the six checks accompanied by a note to the recipient thanking the volunteers and staff of each organization for their unique contribution to the Jewish mosaic. It went to institutions large and small. The large ones deposited the checks and sent a form letter. But many of the smaller ones either wrote a personal note on the acknowledgement or called me, including agency presidents who would otherwise deem me an untitled peasant. Over the years the bimonthly donation would be monthly and the amount greatly expanded to be many times greater than what I ever offered the Federation solicitor. A small blog entry on this.

    A few weeks ago a friend from AKSE commented that he read my letter which Moment Magazine had printed. Except I hadn't written a letter to Moment Magazine. I had sent them a check with my customary note of thanks which found its way to Page 8.

    Because I had the good fortune to have a strong Jewish background, by then more than thirty years organizational experience, some favorable, some irritating, none previously that I'd call monsterous, I had a pretty reliable concept of what belongs or does not belong in organizational Judaism's generally precarious sukkah. The experience that I walked away from as adverse personal experience clearly did not but at least I could recognize it as an outlier to other organizational experiences that are compatible with the sanctity to which Judaism aspires and seek those out, which is what I have done. Unfortunately not everyone who has been victimized in some way by the negative experiences that sometimes come along is able to assess this as a form of Ayn Torah. Too often they are left with the impression that what they experienced is Torah and therefore need to escape it.

    As I look at the Pew Research results and assess what is now fifty or so years of Jewish experience, I'm increasingly convinced that we have a form of leadership generated attrition. Stephen Covey in his "7 Habits" had an early chapter in which he distinguished measuring success by adherence to priniciples and measuring success by superior technique. Too many of the leaders measure their success by how much moolah they can get people to pledge, but forgetting too often that attrition or other means of discouraging loyalty can be an unacceptably high amount of overhead.

    1. Great response! And you're right, too frequently the manner in which we approach money and giving in the Jewish community, be it the treatment of 'machers', or how money is used, or how givers and their gifts are received. Clearly, some along the way understood the importance of thankfulness, and others, sadly, didn't. More than that, as you said, too frequently we use the wrong measuring sticks. All the more reason to talk about it, and talk about in a way that IS Torah!

      AND--I'm using that midrash for my bulletin article! :-) Thank you for sharing your thoughtfulness and experiences!