For years after I first became observant it was obvious to me that I should devote more than a token amount of my tzedakah money to kiruv organizations.
Live and learn.
I have lived a lot since that proposition was obvious to me, and I’ve learned a thing or two, too.
One reason for the shortfall is the fact that, sadly, my actual ability to give tzedakah turns out to be a lot more “token” than I had once thought it would be by now. That’s not only a matter of not having become a millionaire at age 30 (never one of my goals, actually — and there you have it!) but is also a product, of course, of the charming reality of how expensive it is to support a medium-sized frum family in the New York area, a topic that has been discussed at length on this blog.
Contrary to what I might also have thought, the size of the pot available for donation, in turn, affects the percentage.
The reason percentages of tzedakah allocated to kiruv are not necessarily “scalable” implicates the second factor that has affected my thinking about this: A lot of those donations are sort of stuck at what we might call hard numbers. For example, for each educational institution educating our children that requires a journal “donation,” there is a minimum size ad required in order to attend the dinner — and we are, of course, expected to attend. Then there are the dinners for the shul or shuls where we daven [attend services], the local yeshiva, the bais medrash where we learn or perhaps our kids do, the chesed organization we’re involved with — and then all those “honors” being bestowed on family members and friends, in turn.
Yes, we have to make decisions, establish priorities, draw the line somewhere. We must and we do. But as a young newcomer to observant Judaism, I would never have understood that as you go through life in the frum world you will accrete innumerable relationships to institutions and to people — and in turn, albeit indirectly, to the relationships those people have to other institutions — and that this geometry of relationships simply implicates a certain amount of charitable giving among those who can do so at all.
Indeed, to the extent that proportion does anything here, it probably works precisely the opposite from how you would think except perhaps for the very wealthy. The percentage of tzedakah money available for supporting kiruv institutions probably shrinks as one’s income increases, because steady economic progress is usually accompanied by steady growth of one’s social and, in the case of frum Jews, religious affiliations. In turn this results in more “obligatory” dinner appearances or eat least journal ad “greetings” — such favors, after all, being expected to be returned when one is himself the honoree at some event.
Moreover, which Jewish educational institution that is educating our children is not in dire financial straits almost all the time? The very fortunate few who can — and do — pay full tuition essentially flag themselves as not-literally-destitute by doing so. That means a warm visit from the hanhola [management], which will make a compelling case for some degree of additional assistance for the institution that is educating your children. Now. Today, and probably for years to come.
We have to make decisions, establish priorities, draw the line somewhere. We must and we do. But drawing these lines concerning the people, institutions and communal needs that directly implicate you and your family, now, is not easy.
What, after all, have the kiruv institutions that got me here done for me… lately?
One obvious problem for kiruv fundraising is that alumni who have moved on, so to speak, don’t “need” them any more — all the more so kiruv organizations seeking to raise funds in the frum community from non-alumni. Seeking donations from very well-off donors is one thing; but how do Aish HaTorah and the rest make the case to me to financially support their programming over the programming of institutions and organizations I am involved with, directly or through family members or direct communal involvement, right now?
Guilt? That will only take you so far; frequently, in fact, it will push the potential donor over the edge entirely.
There are other problems. One is the programming itself. Kiruv is a funny thing; it’s changed a lot in a lot of places over the last generation. I can’t say I understand how and why the money raised by kiruv organizations is being spent. I’m not even so sure I would be so happy if I did understand it. So can I conclude that prioritizing a given program as a recipient of what I can spare is the best use of my tzedakah money?
At the end of the day I give to kiruv organizations to the extent that I can based on very similar criteria to those I employ with respect to other tzedakahs: Mainly relationships and trust. Some kiruv professionals who meant a lot to me are still in my life, and not because I’m anything like a money tree nor because they’re still “working with” (much less “working on”) me; they just are still near and dear to me. That’s a relationship, and that’s an organization I am always going to find some way to help out.
Then there are others where there is no ongoing relationship, and after all I have not necessarily sought one. So be it.
And then there are ones I hear from when they need something from me.
And new ones — how about programs that may be brilliant and effective that I have no relationship with at all?
Chances are, it will stay that way.