Live from the Lilith Blog

March 4, 2008 by

Philanthropy Begins at Home

We all know the stereotypes about Jews and money, but what if you’re Jewish and you don’t have any money to speak of? It’s one thing to help the UJA/Federation raise money for Jews facing persecution in third world countries, but what about when the need for charity lies closer to home?

My son attends a Jewish day school. He gets what used to be called a scholarship but is now called financial assistance.

I love N’s school. I love the warm environment and the excellent teachers. I love it that his principal knows who he is. I love the fact that he reads Hebrew as well as English, love that the songs he sings are Jewish songs. The school both challenges and nurtures my son—it’s true, the platitudes found in school promotional brochures really apply. Of course, for $16,000 for first grade, I should expect nothing less.

I wish that Jewish schools (and synagogues) operated on a sliding scale system. It seems correct to ask people to pay a percentage of their income, rather than charging everyone the same tuition or membership costs. My husband and I have not officially joined the shul we attend because we cannot afford it.

I wonder if the reason the sliding scale system has not caught on is because of the golden rule—the person with the gold makes the rules. If you’re rich, a sliding scale works against you. On the other hand, N’s school has many very generous, wealthy families. With all the money they donate to the school on top of the tuition they pay, they may in fact approximate what a sliding scale payment would be for them.

But then there is what I call the Water Fountain Factor (WFF). If families with lots of money gave more to the school because they had to, there could be no water fountains (or classrooms/libraries/early childhood centers, etc.) named for them. They would not be able to feel particularly good about the money they gave to the school, and their generosity would not be made public.

When I was in college, I read an essay by Audre Lorde called “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In it, Lorde observes that slaves, particularly house slaves, knew much, much more about their masters than their masters knew about them. It has been 20 years since I read that essay, but I have never forgotten Lorde’s message: the have-nots always know more about the haves than vice-versa. Money and status don’t just buy things, they buy a privileged, easy ignorance.

Last year, on N’s first day of kindergarten, I saw that the children’s cubbies were organized in birth order, with the child’s birthday posted above the cubby. N shared his date with another boy, and though their birthdays weren’t until spring, I made a mental note to work out the kids’ party schedule with the other family.

About five weeks before the big day (which fell on a Sunday, making it quite easy to pick a day to celebrate), I called the other mother to work out the conflict. She had no idea what I was talking about; had never realized that the boys shared a birthday. In fact, she told me, she had just ordered the party invitations the day before. (That’s right, ordered the invitations. From a printer. As though it were the child’s Bar Mitzvah.)

Long story short: N shared his birthday with J, the richest kid in the class—possibly in the entire school. J’s party was held in his giant, over-the-top house, which features a full-size gym/basketball court (complete with snack bar, N informed me). There were waiters passing baby lamb chops, carnival games and rides, basketball games, and, instead of goody bags, a giant candy “bar”—bins and bins of different candies—from which the kids could pick the sweets they wanted.

Now, J’s family is very generous to the school—and they get honored for it. But how wonderful would it be if they gave the same amount of money without the fanfare. Biblical tithing—ma’aser—would do much more for Jewish organizations than the WFF model. It is true that “Ein kemach, ein torah” (without money, there can be no torah). But it is also true that “Lo al halechem livado yichyeh ha’adam” (man cannot live on bread alone). Out of the tension between these two principles, both equally true, we must forge a new way of funding Jewish communal life.

–Claire Isaacs