The impact of giving: A call to action
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OpinionGuest Columnist

The impact of giving: A call to action

American Jews typically translate this word as “charity,” tzedakah really means “the obligation to do what is right and just.”

The traditional blue tzedakah box. (Photo courtesy of JNF)
The traditional blue tzedakah box. (Photo courtesy of JNF)

The current deluge of mailed fundraising solicitations and the timing of Giving Tuesday are no accident — as we approach December, many of us think about our year-end charitable giving. This time of year also makes me reflect personally on the remarkable century-long evolution of Jewish Pittsburgh.

Our Jewish agencies and synagogues have been at the center of this evolution from a struggling, often marginalized group of immigrants to a thriving community, fully integrated into city life. Without donor support, these institutions would not have been able to help people facing food insecurity, to care for older adults, to educate our youth, to engage our next generation in Jewish peoplehood and to protect us from antisemitism. Charitable giving has truly made our community the model it is today.

I have had the privilege of living here and working for the Jewish Federation for over 25 years. This incredible experience has been a lesson in the power of tzedakah. Although American Jews typically translate this word as “charity,” tzedakah really means “the obligation to do what is right and just.” This righteous obligation compels all Jews not only to give but also to treat people with compassion. Many different factors motivate individuals to give; but all are important and form part of Jewish moral and ethical tradition.

When people give time, treasure or talent to charity, they are investing in making the world a better place. This work embodies the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, referring to various actions intended to repair and improve the world. This value may explain why Jews comprise a disproportionate number of the world’s leading philanthropists working within and outside of our religious community. Giving charitably locally, in Israel and across the globe also strengthens our moral values and has become a major expression of our Jewish identity. Giving contributes to the idea that we are not only a local Jewish community, but a global Jewish people.

Judaism values teaching, which can include leading by example. Charitable giving sets an example for the next generation that models the value of generosity, helping others and selflessness. This behavior aims to inspire young people to continue investing in our community, helping to grow the charitable impact, and creating a legacy of giving to future generations that will keep Jewish Pittsburgh strong.

Collective impact has been at the core of Jewish life for millennia. Pooling our resources enabled Jews to direct these resources toward the most pressing needs locally and globally. This practice has grown even more important today because pooled private giving leverages corporate, government and foundation dollars as well as enabling shared services such as security and a health plan across Jewish institutions. Presently, for example, private giving enabled the Jewish Federation to work with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s LIFE & LEGACY™ program to provide funding and training for 18 Jewish agencies and synagogues in Pittsburgh to build endowments that will sustain our community for the future. Ultimately, collective impact enables us to connect people to Jewish life, support those in need and build a safer, more inclusive world.

Our Jewish tradition also teaches the value of planning for the future. Sustaining our local Jewish institutions into the future depends largely on securing legacy gifts such as bequests, endowments or other planned gifts. No nonprofit or religious institution can survive into the future without such important sources of funding. The aforementioned Grinspoon program makes this year a particularly good time to leave planned gifts, leveraging additional money for your favorite institution.

In Jewish tradition, we are taught that the highest form of charity is giving without the expectation of receiving anything in return and without knowing who you have helped. Nevertheless, we still get both tangible and intangible benefits when we give. Intangible benefits include, of course, feelings of purpose, communal pride and joy in making a difference in others’ lives. The tangibles are many: income tax deductions, savings on capital gains taxes when giving securities, and reduced estate taxes when we make planned gifts in our wills or estate plans. Skilled professionals at the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation can detail these tangible benefits.

If the timing of all those fundraising letters is no accident, neither is the strength of our amazing Pittsburgh Jewish community. The Jewish text Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of Our Fathers,” teaches: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Verse 2:21). This call to action and rejection of apathy, even when the task at hand seems overwhelming, instructs us to push forward without knowing the outcome. Charitable giving, a vital part of Jewish tradition, has and will continue to have a profound effect on the community around us. I welcome everyone to be part of our Jewish collective and pay it forward. PJC

Brian Eglash is the senior vice president and chief development officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He is also a chartered advisor of philanthropy (CAP) and a 21/64 next generation philanthropy advisor with nearly 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. For more information on charitable giving or leaving a legacy, contact Brian at beglash@jfedpgh.org.

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