Charitable Lessons


Published December 16, 2009, issue of December 25, 2009.
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The story in this week’s Forward about the $12.25 million gift from a group of donors to a Jewish day school near Boston arrives at the end of this trying, tumultuous year with several important messages.

The first is that high-quality, pluralistic day school education is worth supporting. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote on these pages a few weeks ago, “only day schools offer the tools to make a mature embrace of Judaism plausible for many of our young people.” There is no easier, cheaper alternative. A trip to Israel, a summer of camp, exhilarating though they may be, cannot begin to compare to the immersion in Jewish life provided by full-time education, especially for non-Orthodox Jews whose skills, confidence, commitment and identity are tested daily in the broader world.

The second message is found in the target of the gift: debt reduction. Hardly a sexy prospect. The donated millions will not be used directly for programs, buildings or any concrete creation, but rather to enable Gann Academy to retire an existing debt and therefore focus its resources on things of educational value. Anyone involved in running nonprofit institutions knows that gifts of this nature are the most prized, because they strengthen the core mission without embellishment or distraction.

The third message is even more profound. Unlike 95% of the donations to education in America, this one is anonymous. Imagine! A charitable act without a demand for public recognition. It recalls Maimonides’s wise but often ignored teaching that emphasizes the anonymity of the donor and puts at its highest value donations that strengthen others.

The human need to create something in our image, and to receive credit where credit is fairly due, is difficult to overcome. We cannot all be as generous and self-effacing as the Gann Academy donors, but that doesn’t mean their behavior shouldn’t serve as an example to be honored and, let us hope, emulated.

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