As the CEO of a Jewish community foundation, I often walk the halls, sanctuaries, offices and schools of many synagogues.
As you might expect, Jewish values are evident everywhere: Toddlers are marking Shabbat in the preschool; youngsters are reciting the aleph bet in Hebrew School; tweens are studying for their bnei mitzvah, as high school students debate the relevancy of Jewish law on the pressing issues of today.
As I continue my walk through the social hall, adults are feeding the homeless and preparing to host them overnight in a makeshift shelter, all part of the shul’s tikkun olam efforts. They prepare this meal in what is likely a kosher kitchen, or at least a kosher-style one. If I happen to be visiting a shul on Shabbat, there is undoubtedly a different “feel” than on other days, even if the temple does not observe a fully halachic Shabbat.
All of this is as you would expect — just until I make my way to a meeting of the finance or investment committees, which are responsible for managing the temple’s assets. And, while I’ve soaked up Jewish values on my walk, I’m expected to check those same Jewish values at the door before I enter that meeting.
My question is: Why? Why does a synagogue community go to great lengths to ensure its kitchen’s kashruth, but allow its endowment to prosper from companies whose environmental, labor and community practices are at odds with Jewish values?
Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, well over one hundred are related to commercial activity, more than four times the number that cover the dietary laws that are widely associated with Judaism. Jewish tradition values worker dignity, outlining employers’ obligations to employees. Our laws prohibit businesses from charging exorbitant prices for consumer staples lest people be unable to take care of their basic needs. We are admonished not to destroy our natural resources. We are told that the highest form of charity is to provide a job or otherwise enable a person to become self-sufficient so that they will no longer need charity. And the list goes on and on.
Each of these commandments, and others, has implications for how we earn, spend, donate and invest our funds. Just as no single human being can observe all 613 commandments all the time, no company has a perfect record consistent with these values. But like all people, all companies can improve their performance—if they are encouraged to do so.
Using increasingly popular tactics known as impact investing, synagogues, and all Jewish institutions, can invest their funds in ways that encourage companies to behave consistently with Jewish values, and they need not sacrifice financial return. Impact investments are investments made with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
For example, two years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego (JCFSD) became the first Jewish community foundation to offer its fundholders, including thirty-five Jewish organizations whose financial assets it manages, the opportunity to invest consistently with Jewish values while still earning the financial returns they are accustomed to from traditional investments. Branded as JCFSD’s Impact Investment Pool, this investment option has financially outperformed its traditional comparative benchmarks.
As part of its impact investment pool, JCFSD participates in the Jewish Advocacy Strategy, an investing strategy overseen by JLens Investor Network, a firm that works to align investment capital with Jewish values. Rather than screening “bad actors” from their portfolio, the Jewish Advocacy Strategy leverages its ownership position to change corporate behavior. Recently, JLens and JCFSD, along with other investors, successfully convinced Teva Pharmaceuticals, the largest distributor of generic opioids in the world, to shift how doctors are educated about opioids, how sales teams are compensated for them, and how prescriptions are tracked, to identify potential irregularities. These are significant steps in addressing the opioid crisis.
Through the Jewish Advocacy Strategy, synagogues and other Jewish institutions can also support Israel in meaningful ways. More shareholder resolutions concerning Israel—mostly supporting the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement—are filed than resolutions regarding every other country in the world combined. As owners of stock in these companies, we can stand against misinformation, combat anti-Semitism and support Israel, all by exercising our rights as shareholders. Yes, it’s important to sponsor your local “American Friends of X Israeli Charity” event. But it’s every bit as important to be heard in major corporations’ boardrooms when it comes to Israel.
Judaism requires that we conduct business in good faith. The rabbis of the Talmud remarked: “at the moment of divine judgment in the world to come, the first question a person will be asked is not ‘did you pray’, nor ‘did you keep kosher’, but ‘did you transact your business dealings ethically?’”
It’s about time we start behaving so that when the time comes, we can all answer with a resounding “Yes.”
Beth Sirull is President and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, Miriam and Jerome Katzin Presidential Chair.