Putting Tzedaka Where Our Values Are

By Zelda R. Stern

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Three brief vignettes illustrate the situations I face as a feminist Orthodox Jew who funds Jewish organizations and show why I give the way I do.

• A fund-raiser asked me to sponsor a number of Hebrew letters — at $18 per letter — being written by a scribe, into a Torah scroll.

I asked this solicitor if, after the scroll was written, girls and women were going to be allowed to read from it.

He said no.

So I told him I could not give any money to this project, I told him why, and I said that he should feel free to solicit me should he ever be involved in fund-raising for a Torah scroll that would be read by girls and women.

• A fund-raiser for a large and old Jewish organization asked me for a donation. I told him it was my understanding that there were no women officers in this organization, and I wondered why not.

He answered that when the organization was formed about 100 years ago, it was written into its constitution that women were not allowed to serve as officers.

I responded that the Constitution of the United States allowed slavery and denied women the vote and that, thank God, we have amendments. So why not amend his organization’s constitution?

He answered that it was for reasons of rabbinical canon law that women could not serve as officers: The law does not permit it.

I responded that there was, first of all, a major difference of Orthodox rabbinical opinion as to whether women could serve as officers. Second of all, any organization that denies itself the wisdom of 51% of the population cannot be as effective an organization as it should be.

So I told the fund-raiser that I could not give him a donation, but that when and if there were women officers, he should give me a call.

• A fund-raiser called me to contribute to an Orthodox Jewish day school.

I asked to see the curriculum, and we made an appointment to meet at the school.

(By the way, making an on-site visit — where possible — is usually very helpful.)

During this school visit, in reviewing the curriculum, I noticed that the boys studied Talmud, and the girls studied watered-down Jewish subjects.

There was no curricular change in the offing, and so I told this fund-raiser I could not contribute to the school, but I encouraged him to solicit me again should the school’s policy change.

I believe that women and girls should be afforded opportunities to engage in Jewish ritual, to have equal access to leadership positions and to have unlimited opportunities to acquire knowledge.

So I could not give money to these three organizations that asked me for donations.

How should we decide where to give our charitable dollars? How do we determine which of the many institutions, agencies, projects, and organizations that solicit us are worthy of our large or small contributions?

We should make our decisions based on our values.

We need to first think through and determine what is important to us. What are we passionate about? What, indeed, are our values?

Then we should put our tzedaka where our values are. We must make sure our tzedaka is aligned with our values, that it reflects our values.

So we should really assess ourselves before we assess any possible recipient of our money.

Girls and women are studying Talmud in increasing numbers. I applaud and support this. So I cannot support a boys’ yeshiva where the teachers are teaching these boys that it is forbidden for girls to study Talmud.

I am passionate about my Judaism and passionate about my feminism. I feel so deeply that we Jewish women and girls need to be empowered and strengthened in all spheres of life — in our families, our workplaces, our schools, our synagogues and our communities.

I want my tzedaka to reflect and buttress these values. So I support those organizations, institutions, projects and programs that maximize the potential of Jewish girls and women.

In order to make these tzedaka choices, I ask a lot of questions — all the time.

For example, before deciding whether to give or not, I ask the organization if women are represented fairly in terms of both board membership and management positions. I always ask for letters listing officers and board and staff members. Seeing a list of professional and lay staff is a quick way to get a sense of women’s representation in the organization.

When considering a donation to a Jewish community center, a Y or a school, I want to know if there is equal access to sports facilities and organized team sports for boys and girls.

I look at personnel issues. How liberal is their maternity leave? Are there opportunities for flex-time and part-time work? Are women afforded salaries, benefits and advancement commensurate with men?

In regard to schools, it is not enough for me to know that the students are receiving a Jewish education. I want to know who the teachers are and what, exactly, are they teaching. Are there good and appropriate role models for girls? Is the curriculum a gender-sensitive one?

If I decide not to give based upon a principled reason, I articulate the reason so that the institution will not interpret my passing on a contribution as simply lack of funds.

But not only do I tell fund-raisers why I will not give, I tell them why I am giving. It is important to relay this information, too. By telling the laypeople and professionals who solicit our contributions exactly why we are giving — or not giving — to an organization, we have a great opportunity to possibly bring about change, especially if many of us do this. As we discussed at the last Conference on Jewish Feminism and Orthodoxy, numbers — of voices, women and, certainly, dollars — are important.

I believe that by our words and our money we can bring about change. We are all potential agents for change. By speaking up and putting our tzedaka where our values are, we can enhance life for women and girls, and thus for the whole of the community.

We all have dreams of a better world, small dreams and large dreams. The way we handle our tzedaka decisions can help make these dreams happen. We wield great power with our money. Let’s use this power well.

Zelda R. Stern, a psychotherapist and donor-activist, is a board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the Harry Stern Family Foundation. This article is adapted from the Jewish women volunteer leaders summit, “Impact and Influence,” held in May.

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