There is more to charity than money

Let’s not knock cash-based philanthropy — we need it. At the same time, there’s no substitute for face-to-face help.

By Laura Marks, November 6, 2008

Let's face it, all too often, Jews and money are strongly linked in the public psyche - and not in a good way. The speed with which entirely fallacious claims about the transfer of funds from the collapsed investment bankers, Lehman Brothers, to Israel spread round the web is testimony to that. But it was not just the internet antisemites who made the connection. Others may share my discomfort at a news report on Rosh Hashanah stating that "nothing will happen on the New York stock exchange today because it's a Jewish holiday" carrying with it the implication that banking, stocks and Jews are indivisible.

There are sound historical reasons why Jews have - at least since the middle ages - been attracted to portable assets. There is also nothing like abject poverty to create a respect for money. And, for many Jews, money-lending was one of the few professions open. Furthermore, the arrangement suited borrowers who retained the option of expelling (or worse) their creditors when the unpleasant prospect of repayment loomed.

But there are positive facts about the Jewish "connection" to money. Jews have developed a respect for money as a result of what can be done with it in terms of tzedekah - which means both righteousness and charity. In terms of basic, religious justice, therefore, money is valued - indeed often revered - not for its own sake, but for its power to do good.

While not unique to the Jews, the obligation to give to charity is taken seriously in our community and the Jewish willingness to give in a good cause undoubtedly compares favourably with other members of society. Certainly, the injunction to give 10 per cent of our income to charity compares favourably with the government target to donate one per cent of GDP to the developing world.

It is perhaps for such worthy reasons - and not just from the worship of Mammon - that, as a community, we tend to hold the mega-wealthy in high regard. After all, their numbers contain the philanthropists who underwrite the activities of many of the 2,500 Jewish voluntary organisations in this country.

And not just Jewish projects. At one non-Jewish charity fundraising lunch I recently organised, I was struck by the relatively high contribution the Jews present had made to the total collection. The fact is, Jews get it when it comes to tzedekah.

It is telling that half of the top 10 entrants in this year's JC Power 100 are philanthropists. Moreover, around a quarter of the people on the full list are recognised for their charitable donations, with a collective wealth running into many billions of pounds. In contrast, setting aside paid professionals, there are probably only half-a-dozen who were recognised for their hands-on charitable work.

Now I would in no way seek to diminish the endeavours of our many generous philanthropists and some of them, notably, combine the giving and the engaging admirably. But does all this cash blind us to the less high-profile efforts of the silent army of volunteers who keep the community (and not just the Jewish community) ticking over day-by-day?

We know that money can't buy you love, but neither does money visit the sick and elderly, pick up rubbish, provide respite care, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those seeking asylum; teach, comfort, or inspire compassionate behaviour. Nor does it, on its own, perform many of the other invaluable activities undertaken by our community's volunteers.

As a mother of three, I am delighted to see a trend towards children at bar/batmitzvah age being encouraged to practise philanthropy, and I applaud the UJIA for its initiative on this. I am especially gratified to see teenagers trying seriously to engage with the social issues of our times amid the extravagance of a modern simchah and in response to the young boy or girl's sudden receipt of a slice of wealth.

In the United States, where money rules, you would expect the nation's charity to be overwhelmingly focused on cash. Yet, having spent three years in the US, I know that this is not the case. Mitzvah Day in Los Angeles is a massive event, in which more than 50,000 people, Jews and non-Jews, take part. And - much to the amazement of the antisemites - no money changes hands. Instead, the day is an entirely democratic occasion where everyone contributes equally. It was experiencing this collective longing to help that inspired me to bring the idea to the UK.

It is important in these troubled economic times to remind ourselves how much we can do without money. There are other ways to change the world for the better.

Jews generally do not subscribe to the theory that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. To my mind, the rich philanthropist is surely entitled to his fast track through the gates but, alongside him or her will be the people who rolled up their sleeves, got involved and probably wheeled a needy soul through at the same time.

Laura Marks is the chair and founder of Mitzvah Day UK which takes place on Sunday November 16. For information visit

    Last updated: 9:17am, November 7 2008