Top Five Places to Give and Why

  1. AJWS, American Jewish World Service
  2. RAC, Religious Action Center
  3. United Jewish Communities
  4. KAVOD, tzedakah collective
  5. Your congregation

There are several qualifications that one can look for in seeking recipient organizations for tzedakah. Of primary importance is that the organization is effective, that its values are consistent with those of the donor, and that they are efficient. Efficacy can be demonstrated by outcome-based research. Values can be understood both through the work that the organization does and their methods. Efficiency can be approached from many angles, but in the non-profit world, one measure that should be available is the breakdown of expenditures: the greater percentage of the budget invested in programming, the greater potential impact the organization can have.

We selected the following sites as ideal, based on the previously discussed criteria.

1. American Jewish World Service

In the interest of transparency, both of us have participated in AJWS delegations, and have witnessed first hand the kind of partner organizations that are supported and funded. We have also benefited directly from the top rate educational methods engaged to rouse commitment from the American Jewish community. From our perspective, American Jewish World Service has a two- prong mission. The first addresses the goal of alleviating poverty hunger and disease among people in the developing world/ global south. The second prong of their efforts is to promote 'responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.'

These two goals overlap through many of their efforts, but especially through their delegations. Their travel opportunities aim to educate members of the Jewish community, while giving us a first hand experience of working with grass roots partner organizations that do the hard work of alleviating poverty hunger and disease in their own communities. While many such trips dissolve after the flight home, AJWS requires participants to serve through action and teaching efforts. Each participant becomes an emissary and a voice for those who are too far away to be heard.

Receiving the grade of 'A' from the American Institute of Philanthropy, AJWS reports that they spend 82.5% if their budget on programming, which is remarkably high. Using the model of partnership and grass roots methods for creating sustainable change, the efforts of AJWS and the organizations with which it works, exemplifies the biblical injunction to 'love the neighbor as the self', as well as many other maxims.

One featured project is the Hundee Oromo Grassroots Development Initiative. As a local NGO in Ethiopia, their programs include community organizing, environmental rehabilitation and economic support for women and the elderly. The project to which AJWS contributes provides scholarships to 80 adolescent girls to enable them to attend secondary school. Education will provide these women with greater independence and financial self-sufficiency, protecting them from the vulnerabilities experienced by many women in that community.

2. Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

One of the main goals of Reform Judaism is the commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world. Reform Jews live this out by participating in mitzvah projects, creating and volunteering soup kitchens, organizing together to create justice and equality among people, and with the Religious Action Center become a voice in our nation's Capitol. "The RAC has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in the nation's capital for more than 40 years. The RAC educates and mobilizes the American Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on issues from economic justice to civil rights to religious liberty to Israel" (rac.org).

Visiting the RAC's website, one can see at first glance that they do a great deal of work. Their home page boasts resources for congregations to engage constituents in social action and social justice at home. There are also advocacy tools for individuals or groups to make change on issues in the US and around the world that matter to them. Nothing But Nets is one of the highlighted campaigns that purchase insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria in Africa. These nets cost ten dollars and have the ability to save lives.

At home in Washington, the RAC hosts L'Taken Seminars for high school students and a summer program called Machon Kaplan to get students involved in advocacy and learn about the American governmental system. The RAC also provides programming outside of Washington DC, specifically in New Orleans rebuilding the city after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, while learning what Judaism has to say about social action. The Consultation on Conscience is the RAC's flagship social action conference held biennially. This conference offers an outlet for social action chairs, college and high school students to come together to learn about domestic and global issues. As a participant in past years, it provided me with a sense that I could make a difference in my community, while bringing me closer to other people who have similar agendas.

The RAC receives most of its funds from the Union for Reform Judaism, however they highly depend on the generosity of individuals to contribute to their annual campaign.

3. Your Local Federation and United Jewish Communities

One of our goals in this project is to offer innovative perspectives on philanthropy. However, another goal is to reinforce uniquely Jewish modes and perspectives on philanthropy. Just as our ancestors gave tithes, and shtetl residents were required to give to the kuppah, tamchui and other collections, the generations before us built up the federation system that has benefited Jews and non-Jews alike across the United States and throughout the world.

A hesitancy to give to Federation can come from two opposite perspectives. There is a misconception that Federations have high overhead, and that excessive funds are spent on fundraising and staff costs. Wealthy individuals are more likely, now, to create their own family foundations than to give mega-gifts to umbrella organizations such as Federations. The common desires to have more direct involvement in philanthropy and more control over the contributions leads many individuals away from trusting their funds in the hands of community professionals.

Another trend that detracts from giving to Federation is the perception of excess and the feeling of entitlement present for this generation of Jewish youth. In the age of top rate JCCs, free trips to Israel and well funded youth programs, members of my generation often fail to see the connection between the resources that we enjoy and the contributions made by hard working members of the generations that came before us. The first Federation of Jewish Charities was founded in Boston in 1895 under the name of Combined Jewish Philanthropies. While the system continues to become refined and Federations from different cities learn best practices from each other, Federation funds support and enhance the lives of individuals in ways that often go unrecognized. From helping to provide need-based scholarships through Jewish Vocational Services to supporting the elderly through grants to Jewish Family and Children's services, Federations are able to provide consistent annual grants to domestic and international agencies.

The benefits of giving to a collective are manifold: recipient organizations can anticipate income from consistent grants, the needs of groups and individuals can be met strategically and with dignity, and finally, communities can speak in one voice across denominations and other boundaries. While undesignated giving is less chic than specific targeted grants, in many ways it can make more of a difference to organizations committed to doing good.

4. KAVOD.org

Kavod is a non-profit tzedakah collective where participants pool their resources to have a greater impact in their efforts to repair the world. Kavod is a volunteer based organization that includes a rabbis and lay leaders who pool their funds to distribute grants to other organizations that help Jews and non-Jews to live with dignity and honor in the United States, Israel, and around the world.

Kavod sponsors a fellowship in conjunction with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in order to raise the next generation of 'Mitzvah heros.' Students apply for the fellowship in their first year of school and are given the opportunity to disburse and raise funds for organizations that uphold the values of Kavod. Along with supporting a fellowship, kavod.org provides materials on teaching the Jewish value of kavod.

We chose kavod.org for our top five list of places to give because they provide a wide range of grants to help organizations all over the world, but also because they are model for running a non-profit organization with 0% overhead. All of the staff works on a volunteer basis. They provide all of their information online and they personally network to spread the world about the organization. They are so proud of the work they do, that a highlight of their website shows their annual reports. Since the inception of the organization they have spent $75.48. We think this is a great model for synagogues to follow and in which to contribute.

5. Your own congregation

This project was spurred in part by our interest in fundraising in the congregational context. Preparing for the rabbinate, we knew that intriguing people to give generously directly to the synagogue is one of the challenges that we will face in our careers. In our research, several skilled rabbis generously provided us insights on congregational fundraising. Hearing Rabbi Lewis Kamrass tell the story of the renovation of Cincinnati's Plum Street Temple and its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places inspires us to think more broadly about the role of congregational giving. Our synagogues do serve us, but giving to our own congregation is not an act of selfishness, it is an act of generosity and a declaration of priorities.

In an interview with Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, he helped us understand this dynamic. He explained, 'It is easier to raise money for tikkun olam than for the ner tamid.' While he is committed to affecting change in the larger-community, he reinforced the value of congregational giving, explaining: 'we have only ourselves to invest in our institutions.' In the interest of posterity, Leder taught us, 'If you want to raise up another generation... the place where they are going to learn to be generous Jews is in the synagogue.' For both rabbis Kamrass and Leder, their community's investments in their historic buildings represented member's confidence in the strength of the congregation.

Besides a contribution to the capital campaign, most synagogues depend on income above and beyond dues to cover operating expenses. Synagogues depend on the generosity of members to offer educational and worship opportunities, but also to provide support for members in times of need. A contribution to the rabbi's discretionary fund can support a child's summer at camp or the gas bill of an older member in the coldest months. One of the best ways of protecting the economically vulnerable members of our community (not just the stranger, widow and orphan) is by strengthening our synagogues. We should not underestimate the power of a beautify prayer space and a supportive faith community in a time of need.