In hard times, which charities should we give preference to?

December 23, 2009

Question: We are struggling to make ends meet. Is it better to try to pay our shul fees and contributions to our children’s school for Jewish studies in full even if it means stopping our other charity donations, or reduce all of them by an equal amount?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

You obviously take the mitzvah of tzedakah very seriously, which is to be commended. The Talmud (Bava Batra 9a) ranks the mitzvah of tzedakah so highly that it equates it in spiritual value to the performance of all other mitzvot combined. Yet it would be unethical, not to mention counterproductive, to cut back on your obligation to your synagogue and school in order to free up money for other charities.

From an ethical standpoint, you are a beneficiary of the school and synagogue. Both institutions provide you and your family with important services and as long as you are able to afford the fees it is your moral obligation to pay them.

You would not decide to pay your accountant, dentist or car mechanic less than what you rightly owe them for services provided in order to conserve funds for charity. Why is your synagogue or child’s school any different?

Undercutting your synagogue or child’s school is also counterproductive as these institutions will then be forced to rely on the charitable contributions of others in order to plug the gap you will have created. What is the point in freeing up some of your funds for tzedakah when, as a result, the institutions concerned will have to tap someone else’s tzedakah fund?

You clearly care a lot about the charities you have been supporting in the past. Yet as times are tough, you may have to decide which ones are more deserving of your donations than others. Jewish law recognises that no one can support every cause which is why it devised an order of priorities for giving.

The first priority is the extent of poverty. Charities that seek to alleviate frontline poverty should be top of one’s list. The second priority is to help one’s own family. There is little point in giving tzedakah to strangers when one’s own family are in need. The third priority is charities in one’s own community. These must take precedence over charities further afield.

To this traditional list, I would add to my list of priorities charities that deliver the most value for money. Not all charities are as efficient as they could be. In today’s financial climate where everyone is working harder for their money charities must go out of their way to cut back on waste and inefficiency. Charities that excel in this regard should be rewarded.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

I am sure that many JC readers will be nodding their heads as they read your question; it is very tough economically at present; people are constantly having to make choices and impose limits in a way that they never needed to do before.

For some it is also leading to strained home relationships, with arguments between spouses over spending priorities, or guilt at perceived failures in supporting the family, as well as the sadness of having to disappoint children over treats promised and now having to be withdrawn.

If it is true that “charity starts at home”, then maybe it should be in the sense of being gentle with each other, and on oneself, calming fragile egos and working together on the solutions.

Still, that does not mean one should stop giving to others. Whereas the English word “charity” carries a sense of noblesse and of going beyond the call of duty, the Hebrew word tzedakah has an underlying sense of obligation.

Giving is not an optional extra but something one should do as a matter of habit, and regularly. In fact, one should budget for charity, and it should be considered as much part of one’s weekly outgoing as travel expenses. Jewish tradition holds that even beggars should give a little to others, and only the person who can say “there is no one poorer than me” is exempt.

So the question is not whether to give, but how much and to whom? However, I am not sure that I agree with your assumption that shul fees are any less worthy than other charities. Quite apart from having charitable status, synagogues perform a wide range of social, educational and welfare functions; just as with churches and other voluntary organisations, the infrastructure of the state relies heavily on the work they do in helping individuals and binding together communities.

It is true that you personally derive some benefit from the synagogue, but that could apply to many charities and does not make them any less deserving, while the shul serves many others besides you. There are many Jews who pay synagogue subscriptions not for their own sake but because they believe it is right that a shul should exist locally. As for practicalities : I would give a reduced amount to several charities (including the shul) and that way support as many as possible as much as possible.

Last updated: 2:16pm, December 23 2009