In the Jews, God Findeth a Cheerful Giver

JACK L. LEVIN

February 29, 1992|By JACK L. LEVIN

In the midst of recession affecting everybody. The Associated,the Jewish community federation of Baltimore, has just completed another successful campaign of fund-raising. That's good news for non-Jewish as well as Jewish charities.

Half or more of all giving by Jewish individuals now goes to support charitable organizations serving the general community, according to a recent report on Jewish philanthropy. It has been estimated that American Jews, who compose only 2.4 per cent of the population, provide about 5 percent of all philanthropy to secular causes in the United States. This means that Jewish support of non-Jewish charities is abut twice the national norm.

In proportion to population, Jews are 23 times as likely to establish a charitable foundation as Catholics, and about 12 times as likely as Protestants. (However, only one Jewish foundation is among the nation's 100 largest, Baltimore's Weinberg Foundation.)

About 10 years ago, Gwinn Owens, then editor of the op-ed page of The Evening Sun, pointed out that Jewish philanthropy to the arts in Maryland was far disproportionate to the Jewish percentage of population. He scolded wealthy non-Jews for failure to give higher priority to support of the arts and urged them to emulate the Jewish example.

The reasons for Jewish generosity include above-average income resulting from above-average education and motivation. More impor- tant is the Jewish attitude toward the poor and disenfranchised, a direct consequence of both recent and ancient Jewish history.

The present Jewish generation consists of immigrants, their children and grandchildren, who knew poverty not from the media or hearsay but from personal, often searing, experience. The immediate Jewish reaction to the poor is not avoidance, revulsion or outright hostility, but more like there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

Even Jewish yuppies are not as far removed as most Americans from discrimination and deprivation. Their forebears escaped to a hard life as immigrants from an even harder life in the shtetls, the bleak villages of Eastern Europe. Struggling to put food on the table, they nevertheless covered its bare surface with a white cloth and kindled sabbath lights. Barely eking out a living, they had yet encouraged their children to pursue learning, to take voice lessons, to practice playing the violin. Their descendants are inclined to value the quality of life and to support the arts.

But Jewish charity goes further back in time. Its roots reach deep into the Old Testament.

Some of the biblical laws (mitzvot) are in effect a kind of tax upon citizens for the benefit of the poor. In addition to tithing, the sabbatical year was instituted so ''that the poor of the people may eat,'' and so that debts could be canceled.

Jews are not conditioned to follow the David Dukes, Pat Buchanans and others who exploit resentment of and hostility toward the poor, who want to put them out of sight and mind, and to be rid of them by imprisonment and worse.

The words that most Jews live by are the words taught in Deuteronomy: ''If there be among you a needy man . . . thou shalt not harden they heart nor shut thy hand unto him and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need. . . . [If] thine eye be evil against thy needy brother and thou give him nought . . . it be sin in thee.''

The Hebrew word for charity is the same as that for justice and righteousness. Since the ancient prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, Jews have been taught that charity is an indispensable requirement for a life of piety. Ezekiel preached that Sodom was destroyed due to its lack of charity.

The virtues of charity and its heavenly reward have been studied by Jews in the books of Job and Esther and throughout millennia in the Talmud and rabbinic literature. Jewish scholars like Rabbi Assi have argued that charity is as important as all the other commandments put together, that it atones for sins and ensures that the giver will have wise, wealthy and learned sons.

Countless generations of rabbis have instructed that everybody, without exception, is obliged to give charity. Even one who is himself dependent on charity is obliged to give to those less fortunate. Judges have compelled the non-giver to donate according to the court's assessment of his means, and if he refused, to be flogged and to have a sufficient amount of his property confiscated to meet the court's assessment. Rabbis have ruled that one must not give away more than a fifth of his wealth lest he become impoverished himself.

No wonder Jews are good at giving. It is a sacred vow they've been preaching and practicing for a long time. It is the ''pushka'' that was a cherished institution in every Jewish home, the little tin charity box which many generations fondly remember as their first sense of Jewish identity.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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