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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?