Money for Something

Abraham was rich. Jesus was poor. That fact says a lot about the relationship between Jews and money. And money, the giant sucking sound of $7.7 trillion disappearing from the stock market since its peak, is our suddenly unpleasant topic.

It is no sin to be rich, our patriarch’s life reminds us (though if asked, I’m sure Abraham would have said he’s "just comfortable."). Our tradition teaches that sex, food and money are powerful forces that we mustn’t abstain from, but should embrace and channel toward higher ends.

"In many philosophies, people saw poverty and a renunciation of wealth as the only way to achieve some sort of spiritual and moral well-being," said Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari, a former chief economist of the Bank of Israel and author of "With All Your Possessions" (Free Press, 1998), in a published interview. "That never happened in Judaism. Judaism never came to say that this was a need or a lust which had to be eradicated; all it said was that this powerful urge needs to be educated, and for that reason, we have the Commandments, which are obligatory for every Jew."

The causes of the current meltdown — the high-tech bust, Sept. 11, executive greed, Alan Greenspan — and its putative cures — more regulation, a new administration, Alan Greenspan — I’ll leave for others to debate.

What concerns me isn’t the last fiscal year or the next one, but the coming three months. The period from October through December is the primary fundraising time for charitable organizations. It’s when the majority of them find out if they’ll be able to meet the needs of their constituencies for the following year.

In Orange County, at least six synagogues are engaged in capital campaigns, two oragnzations are in the midst of endowment fund drives (Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School and Heritage Pointe retirement community), a major fundraising drive is underway for the new Jewish community campus, and the Jewish Federation’s annual campaign has begun, according to Federation Executive Director Bunnie Mauldin.

"There’s a real trepidation out there to what will happen to everyone during year-end appeals," said Dr. Eric Schockman, MAZON’s executive director.

MAZON, a national hunger relief organization that raises money through Orange County synagogue appeals, must contend not only with the bear market, but with appeals on behalf of Israel’s current crisis. "That definitely is a reality check in the philanthropic Jewish world," Schockman said.

Mauldin agrees that Israel-directed giving is also making a claim on donor dollars. But, she said, many donors are matching gifts for local needs with giufts to Israel. "While the stock market is affecting them they are also concerned by what is going on in Israel," she said. "Jewish people respond to Jewish crises."

As the market continues to fluctuate, Mauldin and other Jewish communal leaders say donations will inevitably fluctuate as well. Already, Mauldin said she’s heard some donors say they cannot match last year’s amounts. "They say the stock market has been unkind to them," Mauldin said. "I can understand."

The irony here, of course, is that just as a bear market lowers giving, it raises need. We will have less money to divide among more hungry, more impoverished and ever-more-costly programs that sustain education and social services.

Worse yet, a bear market may lead us to forget that, in contrast to most of those who need our money, we are still doing just fine. The market may have sucked off the cream, but it didn’t drink all our milk.

"Jewish tradition insists that we are obligated both individually and collectively … to help those people who are deprived, poor, weak, inefficient and even who are lazy," Tamari said. "There is no such concept in Judaism of the ‘deserving poor’ …. A poor man is not entitled; I am obligated."

In other words, our measure as a community — as a people — won’t be in how we weather the bust, but how we help others who are less fortunate weather it.

"It’s going to be a challenge for American Jewry overall," Schockman said. "As Jews, no matter how bad the market is, there is an untapped basis of goodness and largesse that comes out from us. I just think American Jews dig deeper. I hope I’m not proven wrong."

In Abraham Raisin’s short story "First Row Balcony," the once-wealthy Zalman uses his last $2 to buy tickets to a theatrical benefit being held on behalf of a poor Jew in town. Zalman leaves with his two premium tickets, unable to afford bus fare home, but happy that he has helped a fellow soul. The ticket seller never revealed that the beneficiary of the performance is Zalman himself.

May we all find the money of Abraham, and the wisdom of Zalman.