The Ever-Changing Nature of Tzedakah


Five years after the Great Recession, the Jewish approach to charity during times of economic uncertainty continues to evolve.

On a quiet, curving suburban road in West Windsor, N.J., an 80-acre parcel of land, the site of what should be a new, $28 million Jewish Community Center for Mercer and Bucks counties, waits for a fiscal savior. According to multiple reports, including in the Jewish Exponent, the JCC was a mere six weeks away from completion when the project ran out of funds in October 2012. Today, after more than a decade of planning and fundraising, the site is padlocked, surrounded by an overgrowth of weeds and tall grass, a forlorn and forgotten testament to the limits of tzedakah.

The Jewish Community Campus Council of Princeton Mercer Bucks hasn’t been able to collect on many outstanding pledges, and foreclosure on the property looms in the not-too-distant future. So far, no entity — individual, group or company — has come forward to help.

There are many unanswered questions in the wake of the JCC situation, and determining responsibility for what happened and the best way forward are both a ways off. But if funding a new community center is not a priority for tzedakah, just how are we dedicating our time and money, and to what?

“Righteous giving has been lost in the shuffle,” says Rabbi Larry Sernovitz at Cherry Hill, N.J.’s Temple Emanuel. “In the hustle and bustle of a busy world, and in a tough economy, we naturally turn inward and worry about our circumstances. And we also ask ourselves, ‘How can I be righteous in a world that’s not so righteous?’ ”

“But when times are tough, there are still others who have it tougher,” Sernovitz continues, “and there is always our chance to perform tikkun olam, to repair the world: Someone needs a clothing donation, a house needs to be built for Habitat for Humanity, and there is always need for gimilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness.”


Depending on whom you ask, charitable giving is contracting, while getting more personal at the same time. According to The Giving Institute, a Chicago-based organization that provides research and support and sets ethical standards for the philanthropic world, even though consumer confidence is growing stronger, donors are not being as generous as they once were. On their website (, they report that the percentage of personal monetary giving has sunk to only about 2 percent of available household income, “reflecting a reluctance of donors to give generously — even when they have the capacity to do so,” according to the website.

Support for familiar “umbrella organizations” such as United Way, Catholic Charities and even Jewish federations was generally down in 2012, according to Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin of the EHL Consulting Group in Willow Grove, who analyzed the report, “Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy From a Jewish Perspective,” for The Giving Institute.

EHL’s analysis showed that donors increasingly want to “touch” — to directly impact the organizations they support, a manifestation of donors’ changing attitudes toward tikkun olam and the impact of their charitable donations.

“The new generation of donors has a great desire for transparency,” says Lapin, “They ask more questions and they want to know exactly where their dollars are going. The decrease in support is certainly punctuated by the economic downturn over the past five years, but it’s also due to generational shifts, as many major donors are entrepreneurs in their 40s and 50s, instead of CEOs in their 50s and 60s.

“This new generation,” Lapin continues, “also sees that Israel’s economy is vibrant, so instead of first giving to causes that support Israel, as the preceding generation did so well, they concentrate their charitable time and money on more local causes and organizations. The need is certainly here, so it’s not a bad thing — it’s a good thing. The focus is just different.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has also experienced subtle shifts and changes in charitable giving — how people are donating their money and where they want it to go.

“For the most part, giving hasn’t changed very much at all,” says Rachel Gross, director of endowments for the Federation. “In fact, more people are giving, but it’s not keeping up with the need.

“We’re definitely not reaching our potential within the Jewish community,” explains Gross, “but that’s only because people may not be as familiar with how many Federation programs in our area have touched their lives. But we’re holding our own with regard to large donations and endowments. I am constantly surprised by people who were not big givers in their lifetime, but who leave six- and seven-figure gifts for Federation programs after their passing. That’s more people giving more.”


There is no single motivation or explanation for why people give money or time to a cause or organization they believe in. Dr. Barry Rossman, an urologist with the Urology Group of Princeton, has a simple explanation for the charities to which he donates.

“The short answer is that I donate to charities when I can,” says Rossman, “and the reason is this: while I may have, others may not.”

“Regardless of comfort level and relative prosperity,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Goldenberg, director of Chabad of Lawrenceville, N.J., “one can argue that the benefits of tzedakah in financially challenging times like today are even more powerful than in times of economic stability.”

Stephen Spritzer and David Schuchman both know what it means to give of their time and resources during an economic downturn. They each volunteer with the Professional Service Group of Mercer County, a self-managed group that offers job search training, networking and support for the unemployed at the Princeton Public Library. Schuchman, who now manages the IT department for a radiology firm, sees his volunteerism as intensely personal. He learned of the PSG group when he himself was unemployed.

”I continue to volunteer at PSG to remain active in assisting people through the challenges of being in transition,” says Schuchman. “The same can be said for the other networking groups I attend or the charities I donate to. I think for me, the desire to give where I can and choose is more of a connection to my community — job seekers, family, personal, professional.”

Spritzer, a senior finance executive who runs his own consulting group, donates his time and money independently of any religious or secular considerations.

“I was taught by my father, by his example,” says Spritzer, “and I learned at an early age that it was important to help people, whether they were Jewish or not. To my father, it was just the right thing to do, so by definition it was tzedakah, but we rarely if ever used that word in our house. For me, it’s the same thing. I volunteer to network myself, which I guess is a little selfish, but you get so much back when you help other people to network into that next career.”

“For a Jew, giving time and resources is not just doing something nice; it is performing an obligation — being just,” Goldenberg says, “Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word tzedek, which means justice. Furthermore, our belief has it that when you give, you get back 10 times as much. Even some of the more risky investments don’t provide this kind of return.”

Goldenberg explains the concept in a less bloodless manner: “When you give to the poor, you help sustain life. This is the most God-like activity possible, as God is the ultimate giver of life. And there is no stronger drive than to be one with God — doing the same thing God does.”


Amy Krulick helps to sustain a lot of people in the Delaware Valley. As executive director of the Jewish Relief Agency of Philadelphia, her food-focused agency orchestrates an extraordinary monthly gathering in a nondescript Northeast Philadelphia warehouse. On one Sunday every month, nearly 1,000 volunteers assemble, pack and deliver boxes of fresh produce and non-perishable food to more than 3,000 low-income families in the region.

“That’s 23 tons of food a month,” Krulick says proudly. “We have to work harder than ever to raise dollars, but our numbers have remained steady. People may be giving less, but we have more donors, so I guess it’s evening out. And many of our donors are also our volunteers.”

Krulick’s enthusiasm for her work and her volunteer organization bubbles over as she talks about JRA, but she is realistic about the changing nature and reach of her organization.

“There is so much need out there, so many requests for donations, that I think donors have lost that sense of urgency,” Krulick says, “but this is the new reality. With our volunteers, I see an enormous generosity of time and money. One family, whom we helped a while back, just cannot do enough for JRA. They give so much of their time to return the generosity that was shown them when they fell on hard times.

“And it’s not just families,” Krulick adds, “but groups that are playing a huge role with the work we do. Volunteering for our food distribution has become almost a social event. Fraternities, key clubs, synagogues — they all send groups to help, and even businesses send employees to do a little team building within their company. It’s become a significant trend, to encourage people to volunteer as a way of life.”

Krulick sees another trend, too, which may give a glimpse of how the Jewish community is evolving the concept and direction of its tzedakah.

“In 2011 we founded JRAid,” Krulick says. “It’s a different kind of outreach. We have around 1,500 one-on-one volunteer assignments. We call them ‘gigs.’ ” JRAid’s gigs range from simple errands for housebound senior citizens, to replacing a light bulb or a battery in a smoke detector, to plumbing and home repair work.

“This is a more personal kind of tzedakah,” Krulick adds. “I think more people want to do that these days, quietly, directly. Some people don’t want any attention when they do a kindness for someone. Maybe you can’t make a big donation somewhere, but you can fix a window or run an errand. We hope this can be part of a community-wide effort to value volunteering.”


Volunteering is at the core of what Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia has meant to the region for over 157 years. Augmenting a staff of fully licensed clinical social workers, JFCS volunteers help children, seniors and special needs adults with daily and weekly transportation, chaplaincy, hospice support and emergencies, among many other contributions.

“I’ve met volunteers that have been with us for decades, and others who just started last week, “ says JFCS’ new supervisor of volunteer services, Robin Henkin. “I’ve never met such warm, giving, caring, talented individuals. The generosity of people that volunteer with us is overwhelming. They are mitzvahs. They really embody the true sense of tzedakah.

“The next generation is ready, too.” Henkin adds. “As I networked in my new position here, I met with a large group of young professionals in their 20s and 30s, at a meeting, and their focus is on building a stronger Jewish community, networking and doing good. They want to give their time — and money — and have fun and do it as a group. This helps organizations like JFCS to expand programs and have flexibility with our volunteer force. It’s very encouraging. They totally get it. They’re eager! And they’re the future.”

Richard Pawlak is a frequent contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.


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