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.