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The Problem with Charity

            I’ve always felt uneasy about giving charity. I can’t figure out which charities to help, or how to be helpful, or how to not feel guilty for all of the other charities I am therefore ignoring. As the Covid-19 pandemic has grown, I’ve watched others act generously, and give generously, and the peer pressure to do the same has been enormous, but still impossible to live up to.

“I don’t have peers, so I’m safe.”

We had a discussion about charity one Friday night at my synagogue, after hearing the results of a study that said the younger generation of Jews (AKA me) are not giving as much money to charity as previous generations. The consensus opinion among the older congregants was that young people don’t understand that charity is an obligation, and therefore they don’t even think about giving, either to their own communities, or to the needy, or to the arts, or medicine. The older congregants remembered their parents setting aside specific times to give Tzedakah to different charitable organizations. They would do this once a year, or once a month, or before major holidays, and they were purposely involved in the process by their parents, in order to teach them that this is an obligation they would need to live up to as adults.

The discussion then veered off into how we could (and should) use peer pressure to encourage people to give more money to charity; how we should purposely press on those guilt buttons and encourage competitive giving, and offer rewards to those who give, because people need to be pushed to do “the right thing.”

“Do NOT push me.”

And I was left feeling confused, and guilty, and troubled. Because I don’t want to be left to give charity on my own. I don’t have enough money to make a difference, and I don’t want to watch my single coin drop to the bottom of an empty well. I felt like something was missing from this discussion but I couldn’t figure out what it was, at least not right away. I needed to take some time to think about it.

            The word charity feels Christian to me, both because it is, and because it is so often paired with the word “Christian,” especially in all of the Christmas movies I inhale in November and December. The Hebrew word Tzedakah, though, has a somewhat different connotation, even though it is often translated as charity. Tzedakah literally means “righteousness” and refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just. The Torah requires that 10% of a Jew’s income be allotted to righteous deeds and causes.

            Except, from where I sit, giving charity is much more complicated than that. For example, in the United States, people can receive tax refunds for giving money to charity, and many corporations see giving charity as good publicity. Does charity given for selfish purposes still count as charity? Does charity given out of guilt still count as righteous?

            I don’t think I’m the only person from my generation who has noted the hypocrisy, and been put off by it. But for me, there’s also a more personal set of issues in the way. When I was a child, my father often made a show of putting a twenty dollar bill into the pushka (the tzedakah box) at our synagogue, after weekday morning services, or buying gifts for people at our synagogue that he didn’t really know, or helping other congregants when they were locked out of their cars. And at the same time, he refused to pay the bills at home, or fix things that were broken at home. My mother was often left to seek out hand-me-downs, or to buy furniture at St. Vincent De Paul, or to go to consignment stores and flea markets (though the last two she’d have done anyway), to make sure we had what we needed. And then my father would suddenly give us generous presents, though rarely what we asked for, or needed. At the same time, he spent a lot of money on clothes and shoes and hats and books and classes for himself.

            It was very hard for my brother and I to figure out what we could actually afford as a family, and my brother just decided that we were poor, even though in reality we were solidly middle class, given our parents combined incomes, where we lived, and where we went to school, even with scholarships.

“Did you have to walk six miles, uphill, in the snow, to get your chicken treats?”

In graduate school for social work, I heard a lot about the debate between needs-based and rights-based approaches to poverty. Needs-based thinking leads to charity and philanthropy, or voluntary giving to the “deserving” poor. Rights-based thinking includes changes in government policy, income redistribution, wage floors and cash subsidies, so that poverty can be eradicated and no one is seen as “undeserving.”

            As a child, I believed (often incorrectly) that paying taxes would mean lifting everyone up out of the risk of poverty, and creating a social safety net. I thought taxes equaled that ten percent we were required to give to good works, plus some more for roads and bridges. I believed that we paid our taxes so that we could all have our basic needs met. Over time, I started to realize that this wonderful safety net I’d imagined was more like a Swiss cheese umbrella, and I could easily get rained on. I heard screeds against anyone who would apply for disability or Medicaid, like me, instead of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. And I realized that, in the eyes of a lot of people who did not know me, I would qualify as the “undeserving” poor.

            Often, the excuse for not covering the holes in our social safety net is that “charities can handle that.” Except, why would we prefer something as unreliable as charity over obligatory protections?

I think that a big part of why people prefer charity to taxes is that giving charity feels good. I see it in my synagogue all the time. The same people who grumble at having to pay yearly dues (to pay for salaries, building maintenance and repairs, taxes, and other boring things), will gladly give money at a fundraiser, or offer money to charity, or give time as a volunteer. Partially it’s because it looks like generosity, but more often it’s because it feels like generosity. It feels so much better to give a gift that you are not required to give, than to give what is required.

            I remember an episode of Law & Order where a man became addicted to giving away his organs. He wasn’t selling them, or selling his blood, or skin, or whatever else he was giving away, but the feeling of giving and of being generous was so intoxicating for him that he couldn’t stop, even when it put his own life at risk. But, he insisted that the person who received his generous gift be “deserving,” and he was the only one who could determine their worthiness. In fact, he felt justified in killing someone in order to re-gift an organ to someone he deemed more worthy. Giving charity gave him the power over life and death, literally.

            As, as a child, I would have preferred to have an allowance, or clear guidelines for what I could and could not have, instead of randomly receiving gifts (or charity) from my father, when he wanted to give them. And I feel the same way now. I’d rather know what kinds of support I can rely on, and where it will come from, so that I can plan ahead, and not feel constantly on edge about whether the needed gift will come in time, or whether I even deserve that gift.

“When do I get my chicken treats?”

In response to Covid-19, at first, the federal government of the United States seemed to be stepping up and taking responsibility for compensation, not just because we needed help, but because we had a right to it. We wouldn’t have to pay for testing, and we could rely on unemployment and subsidies and rent freezes to allow us to stay home as long as necessary. This made sense to me, both because other countries were doing their own versions of the same thing, and because it was clear that our government could have limited the impact of Covid-19, by testing early and often, providing adequate protective equipment to health care workers, and doing contact tracing as soon as the first cases were discovered.

Pretty quickly, though, it became clear that the measures put in place were wildly inadequate, with underfunded and understaffed unemployment plans, and much of the loan money meant to go to small businesses going to companies who had pre-existing relationships with the big banks. And despite those clear failures, congress was unwilling or unable (depending on your perspective) to offer further support. In response, some politicians advocated reopening businesses and throwing senior citizens into the volcano to appease the Covid gods. And then, because we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, it became clear that the federal government’s already weak response to the coronavirus had dropped precipitously at the same time as studies began to show that poor people and people of color were being disproportionately impacted.

And, as usual, kind and generous people stepped in with charitable organizations to try to fill the gaps. Except, charity means that each individual gets to choose who they want to help, and who they don’t, and many people who needed help were left with nothing.

I have a tendency towards cynicism and hopelessness, expecting failure at every turn, but lately I have been seeing evidence that real change is possible, if you fight for it. I want to learn how to be hopeful and to believe that the current wave of protests and education and political change will take us further than we’ve been able to go in the past. Because honestly, if we don’t make a change soon, I think we’re screwed.

“Uh oh. Mommy used a bad word.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

118 responses »

  1. I enjoyed reading your article, Rachel. Bless you! I understand the dilemma! I also had to work out a solution to my own problem.

    First, I decided that the 10% is not mine (but God’s), so I don’t really feel like I’m parting with my money and being generous. Back home I hand it to the church (where ministers are usually poor)—envelopes are provided so no one can see how much you’ve put in it. But here I see that churches have businesses (schools, community centres, etc.), so I choose ‘charities’ that minister to “widows, orphans, migrants and Levites” (just to remain Biblical!). We also have the Charity Commission where financial statements can be downloaded. When I see that administration cost is more than 10% of the charity’s “income” (I’d equate it to the “tithe of the tithes” for the Levites), I strike it off my list!

    If there’s a need that doesn’t qualify for the above, then I make it up in my mind that what I’m giving is a “freewill offering” and will not touch the 10% that’s already set aside.

    It’s sad that charities have to be set up to fill in what should have been functions of the government. The bright side is that it brings out the good in us–supposedly! It is easy to give from one’s excess, but more difficult to give out of one’s need.

    Reply
  2. Ok, lots of deep thinking here. Money, ego, certainty in an uncertain world, etc. First, though, let’s start with your key question:

    1) Am I giving to charity for the “right” reasons. Plus, if I get a tax break for charitable donations, does that meet the guidelines for Tzedakah. Yes and YES.

    Think of the tax deduction as a way to keep the charity flowing and REDIRECT where your tax dollars are spent. Many folks are conscientious objectors and don’t want their tax dollars going to endless wars and violence. As the author Robert A Heinlein wrote (I’m paraphrasing), when I claim my tax refund or tax deduction for donating to the soup kitchen down the street, I force the government to reimburse me, thus forcing them to spend my portion of tax dollars on something positive vs. leaving them money enough to waste it on endless violence. The war dramas still occur, but I salve my pacifist conscience with the idea that I didn’t subsidize such choices.

    2) You ask the question of generosity and whether it counts if the contributor gives the money to the point of pain, all while neglecting responsibilities and duties owed to one’s self or one’s dependents. This one’s trickier, but I’d say that one lacking the mindset to begin charity at home by taking care of essential business has no idea what charity is. Instead, that person has placed the illusion of control over his or her life as more important than actually being on top of their necessities and responsibilities. The ego stroking or emotional salve one gets by being visibly generous while neglecting self-care or care for their dependents is a form of sickness.

    Think of Mother Theresa (look her up, if you don’t know the reference). She was a nasty woman who lived for the accolades and ego strokes of others, all while neglecting those for whom she professed to care, often with an attitude of, “This is better care than they had before, on their own. I will be rewarded in heaven for even bothering to try to help the lowest of the low” (my paraphrasing). She took great joy in helping others, but her haphazard ability to follow through on necessary care (often being seen as financially extravagant), highlights just some of the challenges of “helping” others far beyond one’s capacity, and far beyond the basic precept of medicine, “First, do no harm.”

    3) Finally, I think this is where we all miss the point of “free will” vs. “charity”, vs, being a cheat or a fraud in requesting aid vs. being too proud to ask for help, and who decides who is the “deserving” poor. Anything you give to the world, be it donations to conserve and protect land, nature, or animals or people, is immediately a bigger cause than just your individual donation to try and improve upon the current status of the need being identified. Know that by giving, you are sending HOPE out into the world. Hope and the willingness to try and alleviate suffering or change the status quo is much more important than the actual cash value.

    So, give what you can, when you can, and to ANY priority you choose as there are so many situations that need help that ALL efforts are worthwhile whether they make a difference or not.

    Tzedakah really means to TRY and be generous in giving for both moral and ethical purposes as part of practicing your faith. I see nothing in anything I’ve ever read about Tzedakah that it has to measure up or be successful in accomplishing a goal. According to the writings of Matthew in quoting Jesus, “There will always be poor among you.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to help (as some people erroneously believe when trying to decide among the deserving and so called undeserving poor or suffering). It means to me that every day there are new opportunities to try again to ease someone else’s burden.

    You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about with your post, and I hope my hijacking your blog with my answer is ok. Many of us struggle with the concepts you’ve raised, and I hope my opinion gives you some comfort to know that your father’s trying to buy your love through something he prized and thought you might, too, shows his struggles to be the better man he wished to be vs. truly achieving that goal by actually understanding what you needed to feel loved and cared for in your younger life.

    Reply
  3. I try to restrict money I donate to animal charities.

    Reply
  4. I have my own charity as of yesterday. It took me three years to swallow my pride, because I can’t let my daughter end up with a father who causes her emotional trauma. I need someone to help me, so I can help her. I posted the link on my site. https://gf.me/u/yny4ff
    There’s the link. You don’t even need to give me money. Spreading knowledge of what the system did to me is imperative for the future of all those who have and who will continue to fall through the cracks.
    In my memoir, I talk about all of this, and hope that one day it may lead to change. The best way you can give charity is by spreading the knowledge of those in needing, and giving them the gift of having others hear their story.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  5. I would like to give more too

    Reply
  6. Excellent piece! So many of these thoughts i’ve had, but many others, not. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks. 🙂

    Reply

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