Ethics of Charity Is Far From Black and White

By Wendy Belzberg

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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My sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship, works full time for a charity for which I have little respect. She has asked me to donate to her charity a five-night stay in a resort that I own. I donate room stays often, but there is no public-relations upside from her group, and five nights is twice as much as I usually give.

— Why should I pay for her charity?

Unless your sister is asking you to support a neo-Nazi group or an organization that directly conflicts with your principles or beliefs, you can’t go wrong being charitable.

Certainly you don’t have to donate more nights than you usually do, but denying your sister’s request for a charitable contribution in order to make a point about her job — or about your difficult relationship — may not be the best way to handle the situation. How about trying the novel approach of talking to her?

* * *

We are a small Jewish community with limited means to help our neediest members. Among our beneficiaries is a divorced woman with two children whom we have been subsidizing for two years. I believe that is plenty of time for this woman to have re-established herself and gotten back up on her feet. Yet she is still unemployed and relies on our charity for her food and rent. There is a split among committee members about what to do: Should we continue to help her out or tell her that it is time for us to support others in the community?

— Help in need

I don’t know the magnitude of your community’s resources or how many needy people are in line for your charity. What I do know is that you may be righteous, but you are not God. It is not for you to judge when someone should get back up on her feet. I could quote Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) about teaching someone to fish or say something pithy about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. But all of the wisdom in the world is only as appropriate — and applicable — as an individual’s ability to act on it.

The woman you describe relies on you for her rent and for food to feed her children. Without embarrassing this woman, it may indeed be appropriate to discuss what steps she is taking in the direction of self-sufficiency, and it may be both appropriate and expedient to help her take these steps. But to cut her off because you — or anyone on the committee — deem her lazy or unworthy is most blatantly uncharitable.

* * *

My 10-year-old son has saved up more than $200 from his allowance, the tooth fairy, chores around the house and birthday gifts. My husband feels that we should teach him early in life the importance of being charitable and wants to make him give 10% to charity. I disagree.

— Money values

Your 10-year-old’s money is his to do with as he chooses. Forcing him to give his money to charity will only result in his resenting the concept. Giving him the incentive to do so — say, by raising his allowance if he dedicates a certain amount to charity — would be a much better plan. Help your son find a cause that makes sense to him, especially one where his hard-earned pennies translate into real results. Giving is as much about goals and intentions — if not more so — than dollars and cents.

It is impossible to force a grown-up to be charitable against his or her will. The importance of instilling in children early on the instinct for being charitable is immeasurable. In our home we have a tzedakah box and a weekly ritual in which every family member makes a contribution. Lead by example and, if that doesn’t work, spend time talking about the topic. If your son is like ours, the threat of another lengthy discussion should be enough to do the trick.

Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at wendy@forward.com.






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