Stephen Schwarzman is a very wealthy man. And a very generous one.
The CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group, a New York investment bank, recently made the largest unrestricted gift to any New York cultural institution: $100 million, to the New York Public Library.
Mr. Schwarzman may well have made gifts to Jewish causes too. Although his current wife is not Jewish and their marriage ceremony was presided over by both a rabbi and a priest, many intermarried Jews maintain relationships to the larger Jewish community and its institutions. The $100 million, though, is going to the public library.
Untold millions of Jewish philanthropic dollars, sums to spin the head of those of us who think in $20 bill denominations, have similarly been donated to causes that, worthy though they might be, do not address needs exclusive to the Jewish community.
Those needs include the Jewish poor, who not only actually exist but comprise a sizable subset of some communities. In New York, fully 145,000 Jews are classified by the government as poor, and another 375,000 as “near poor.” There are considerable numbers of impoverished Jews in other American cities as well, and in Israel and Europe.
Then there are Jewish day schools and yeshivot that subsist on shoestring budgets, forced to pay subsistence salaries – if that – to their teachers and staffs. And, of course, the myriad worthy Jewish nonprofit organizations that oversee social, educational and cultural projects, and rely on the donations of individual Jews to serve the community.
Yet, as in the case of Mr. Schwarzman’s recent gift, the vast majority of private Jewish philanthropy benefits secular institutions like libraries, universities and museums.
According to a 2007 paper, “Mega-Gifts in Jewish Philanthropy,” written by Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg and published by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, more than 90% of Jewish individual “mega-gift” dollars over the years 2000-2003 were directed to just such entities. Health and medical causes came next. Jewish causes netted approximately 1%.
The strongly Jewishly-identified part of the Jewish community certainly has its own members of means, and they are generously committed to Jewish causes. But the lion’s share of the fruits of American Jews’ business and professional success seems to reside in less consciously Jewish coffers.
That led a thoughtful correspondent to point something out to me: While the secularist segment of the Jewish world may boast the most well-heeled philanthropists, the have/have-not equation is turned on its head when wealth is measured not in dollars but in the currency of Jewish knowledge.
In that calculus, it is precisely the fiscally unremarkable part of the Jewish population that holds the surplus, and the financially successful portion that is most impoverished.
Which thought led my correspondent to wonder further if the more Jewishly-knowledgeable world is sufficiently generous with its spiritual wealth.
It is a worthy question. To be sure, there are many impressive ventures aimed at sharing Jewish learning with Jews who might not have had previous opportunities to meet it. Such “outreach” and Torah-study groups take a variety of forms. Some produce written material; others offer classes and operate study-halls; yet others arrange telephone study partnerships or community Shabbat meals.
And then there are the websites, like aish.com, beingjewish.com, innernet.org.il, ohr.edu, simpletoremember.com (full disclosure: that one is the brainchild of my dear son-in-law) and Torah.org – each of them a cornucopia of Torah-knowledge for Jews seeking it.
There is, moreover, the celebrated and successful telephone study-partner “matchmaker” Partners in Torah (partnersintorah.org); and there are the major publishing houses, like ArtScroll, Feldheim and Targum (whose url’s are their names followed by “.com”), which offer excellent books in English on practically every Jewish subject under the sun.
Where there is arguably room for greater effort on the part of us observant Jews, though, is on the personal level. Opportunities abound in many of our lives for sharing Jewish knowledge – or, at very least, information about resources like those mentioned above – with Jewish relatives, neighbors and co-workers who may not have had the benefit of a Jewish upbringing.
And there are invitations, too, to be offered – for Shabbat or holiday meals, to attend synagogue services or lectures or Jewish celebrations together. Offering an experience of the vibrancy of contemporary observant Jewish life is the single most generous gift any Jew could possibly give another.
So, whether or not material wealth is flowing from the materially successful secular Jewish sphere to less affluent parts of the Jewish community, there is no reason why spiritual wealth should not flow freely from the latter to the former.
Who knows? my correspondent wonders further. Maybe more determinedly sharing such intangible but meaningful possessions will not only yield personal benefits to the Jewish recipients but constitute a merit for the economic wellbeing of Jewish institutions and charities. Addressing the imbalance in Jewish knowledge, in other words, could be the act of generosity to help trigger a positive change in the focus of philanthropists.
The thought is intriguing but moot. Reaching out to other Jews is the right thing to do.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]