Tzedaka and state: He who pays the piper…

Tzedaka and state: He who pays the piper…

Jews have a venerable tradition of tzedaka. The term has been used as a synonym for charity, but there is a difference. “Charity” implies deeds which are intended to benefit a less fortunate person, while tzedaka is a mitzva, a commandment, which has elements of righteousness and justice. Some contend that, because of these elements, tzedaka is a subset of tikun olam.

Tzedaka is usually associated with money. I recall, when growing up, every neighborhood Jewish business, from kosher deli to corner grocery, had a tzedaka box, or pushke, on the counter near the cash register to collect spare change. I particularly remember the blue-and-white tin Jewish National Fund boxes with a map of Israel. Like today’s equivalents, such as Adopt-a-Pet or some particular disease, I still don’t know if the coins in some of these boxes, now coin cards, ever get to their specified charity.

As a Jewish child you are trained to do tzedaka, individually and within an institutional setting. When it came to institutions, you identified with the Jewish ones. You were taught about great Jewish philanthropists; Moses Montefiore immediately comes to mind. You were taught to have pride in Jewish charitable institutions because we Jews were not beholden to anyone.

We took care of our own. We were supposedly self-sufficient; Jews contributed their money to Jewish charities to take care of Jews.

At some time that changed — my guess is in the 1960s in the infancy of the Great Society, which vastly increased social welfare programs and, at which time, the word “entitlement” became widely used in the political lexicon.

Enter the world of public financing of services which mainly used to be the purview of private charities. Private charities at that time and still are government-regulated to make sure that funds donated by the public are used as donors and the charters of the charities intend. This form of regulation was primarily done by the states.

The new world of entitlements came with its own cabinet-level department, now called the Department of Health and Human Services, which is both a regulator and now a dispenser of government largesse.

Government tax policies — the best and most efficient vehicle for social engineering — encouraged charitable giving by allowing tax deductions for donations and gifts to charity.

But with the ever-rising national debt, now about $12.1 trillion, and unfunded national liabilities for Medicare, Medicaid, and prescription drugs of approximately $106.6 trillion, exclusive of the debt burden of states and localities, the federal government is looking for ways to increase tax revenues.

One such way is to decrease the charitable deduction. This has been proposed in different amounts by both President Obama and the Senate Finance Committee as a means to help finance health-care reform.

The economic downturn has taken its toll on Jewish charities. Last month, in explaining why the 2010 UJA campaign is so important, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ executive vice president Max Kleinman stated in his “‘Max’imum Potential” blog:

“Last year was a devastating one for our society. The economy ‘tanked’ and, with it, the confidence of the American people. Millions of jobs were lost, as were trillions in investments. There was even great concern that we were heading towards another Great Depression….

“At UJA MetroWest, we are not immune to societal pressures, which had a deleterious impact on our Campaign.”

That toll would only be compounded were the tax advantage of charitable contributions to be reduced. Whether people give less because of their own economic hardship, or because the tax incentive has been reduced, the effect on philanthropies is the same. Meanwhile, tough economic times increase demand for the philanthropies’ services.

How is the shortfall to be met? The immediate reaction is to look to government to make up the difference. Some local social service agencies receive 70 percent of their budget from government funds.

There is a version of the Golden Rule which goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” In the charitable world, large contributors usually got special treatment and recognition. Jewish institutions offered “naming rights” long before municipalities learned they could get large sums of money for naming a stadium after a corporation.

How will the Golden Rule play out in the Jewish charities context? Will the current secular push to completely expunge any form of religious expression from governmental activities convert charities with a strong Jewish identification to mere service delivery vehicles for government-funded programs? Will government regulations supersede, and possibly contravene, Jewish tradition and Halacha in the governance and operations of Jewish agencies?

Will future generations look at what are now identifiable Jewish institutions as affiliated only with the government?

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