Appeals by Nechamah ReiselVolume 5 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1991 | Tishrei, 5752)
Lo, the summer is past and the sounds of appeals are once more about to be heard in the land -- an unappealing prospect. Air conditioning notwithstanding, dog days are inimical to dogging potential donors. This is not to say that fund raising events have totally ceased during the summer, but that they have merely diminished in frequency.
Here and there we read about still another fund raising luncheon or dinner honoring a celebrity who, on the surface, seems to have no relationship to the charity honoring him. Not infrequently, this personage turns out to be the principal guest speaker. He uses a stock speech modified for the current occasion from among those speeches he gives, generally for a healthy fee, to other such organizations. Fund raising dinners and luncheons and their compulsory "guest speakers" and honorees have become big business with the hoopla and concomitant expensive accoutrements. Just how much of the money raised at a particular event finances the overhead and how much is actually left for the charity is a common topic of conversation. And more and more frequently, dissident voices are heard ? voices critical of some aspects of these affairs.
We Jews are a charitable lot. The Torah commands us to give charity, no matter how little one may, himself, have. And give we do, in larger or smaller amounts. We cut our teethon the ubiquitous tzedakah box into which our mother, before lighting candles, places coins or bills; in thanks for the recovery from an illness of a loved one; in gratitude for someone's escape from danger; to beseech the Almighty for the succor of another endangered relative or friend; for a host of other reasons; or just because there is always someone worse off than we are so we must give. We give in the home, in school, at the office, in the street, in the stores we frequent, by mail in response to the hundreds of pleading letters for myriads of causes and institutions, and, of course, in the synagogue.
Coerced to Give
Frequently, we give willingly and anonymously, in whole‑hearted fulfillment of one of the highest degrees of ?tzedakah,? where donor and recipient do not know each other. But with increasing frequency, many of us are giving because we are coerced to do so ? to ?stand up and be counted? ? and to publicly declare the amount of our donation. It is with this form of fund raising, which calls for public pledges and announcements of donations, and also with a more hoary synagogue custom that I take issue. More of the latter later.
Labor Day and the High Holy Days herald a new year of official appealing, pledging and giving. Who has not sat through Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur yizkor sermons that frequently lead into appeals? These are followed, twelve days later, with yet another sermon‑appeal on Shemini Atzereth. And then onward steadily thereafter to more and bigger appeals. Lucky, indeed, are those congregations whose officers and rabbi have decided to dignify at least one of these services by eliminating the synagogue appeal itself and substituting telephone solicitations for pledges prior to the holy days.
While appeals may differ somewhat among the various synagogues, the general formats bear striking similarities. The rabbi gives a learned discourse about the Torah portion and/or the holy day. So far, so good. Somewhere toward the end of his speech, however, he skillfully leads into the main event (from the point of view of the board of directors) ? the appeal. Whatever the purpose, whether the money to be raised is for one of the synagogue's own numerous functions or funds, or for an outside charity, the following fifteen to thirty or more minutes are taken up with a more or less standard procedure.
Speech About the Cause
The president or some other officer ? perhaps the chairman of the fund raising committee ? gives a brief speech about the ?cause.? He then opens the appeal proper by announcing the names of donors who have already made pledges (sometimes known as the ?honor roll?), beginning with the highest, of course. This is to spur competitive pledges and to give the general membership some idea as to the appropriate, expected amounts. While this may, indeed, give impetus to affluent constituents, not infrequently the poorer members, or even comfortable members who previously gave generously, but may currently be unable to do so, are intimidated or abashed. Or, for that matter, this may have just the opposite effect of the announcement's intent. ?If Mr. Big Giver (he for whom the local yeshiva is named, and who owns most of the luxury multiple dwellings in the neighborhood) is giving $5,000 and he's a multi‑millionaire, I, poor schnook, don't have to give more than $10,? the reasoning goes. But how can Mr. Shnook announce a $10 pledge? And if he does, what is the reaction of the Board? Why, for that matter, should how much anyone ? wealthy or poor ? become the topic of the talking (loshon hora) which goes on concurrent with the appeal? Why, indeed? for the kavod ? the honor? So that everyone will know why he and not the previous Mr. Big Donor now receives the chief honor at the Torah on Yom Kippur? In fact, if this happens to be an appeal for one of the large, nationwide charitable organizations that also have fund raising events through other‑than‑synagogue connections, professional or business groups, perhaps, Mr. Big Donor may already have pledged this same amount through them and will be expected to redeem the pledge only once, but he has acted as a ?spur? at two or more appeals. Where is the ethics in such situations?
Furthermore, while synagogue appeals may rely largely on volunteer workers, making overhead cost minimal and the actual net amounts realized from an appeal close to what has been raised, certain other types of fund raising activities net far less. This is particularly true of the journal dinners so much a part of the fund raising scene today. Again, the size and number of ads placed in the journal are determined by the amount donated, and thereby open for all to see. (I gave a gold page. How come you only gave one‑sixteenth of a white page?) What is even more insidious than this public display is the amount of money that is wasted on the journal itself and on the costs of the dinner. Attendance at the synagogue's dinner is, of course, voluntary, but since it is also the main social function of the year, subtle pressures will sometimes succeed in getting the attendance of even the more recalcitrant or reluctant member, particularly if one of the ?honorees? at the dinner is a friend. Meanwhile, the chief beneficiaries of the event must surely be the caterer, the florist, the musicians, printers, and trophy suppliers. Still more is lost from the net profits if the guest speaker is a politician who, for a fee, will agree to speak and ?be honored,? and, it is to be hoped, remember the organization the next time a pertinent measure comes before him. Fund raising is truly a big business not only for the recipient organizations, but for all the industries, including the speakers and speaker bureaus, which service it. Meanwhile, what has happened to the concept of silent charity? While, it is true, the individual recipient is unknown to the donor, the donor's name is a matter of public knowledge and scrutiny. So much for the second highest degree of charity!
There is another form of fund raising which, while less remunerative to the synagogue, is nevertheless, an important source of its income for the synagogue which sanctions it. It is a time‑honored practice which goes back to the ?shtetl? congregations, and one we find today in only a few smaller, poorer Orthodox synagogues and among certain sects in the United States. It is also found in some synagogues in Israel and Europe. This is the practice of auctioning off aliyot. Each honor is auctioned off to the highest bidder prior to the reading of the Torah. While the intent is laudable, the dignity of the service suffers. And while this certainly entails no loss of funds to overhead, again, what happens to the poorer member who can't compete financially? I remember this from my own childhood, when I attended services with my father and longed to see and hear him called to the Torah, but, alas, waited in vain. He simply lacked the financial wherewithal. I do not doubt that my lifelong opposition to publicly announcing donations stems from these experiences as well as from the times when my mother, upon being pressured to announce a pledge, would invariably announce it ohn a nomen, namelessly, both as a matter of principle and because she always felt ashamed of the meager amount she could afford to give (an amount that she had to take from her far‑from‑adequate household money). Is it really a mitzvah to shame one person in order to help another?
If the funds raised by auctioning aliyot are so essential to the synagogue's income, might not a better, silent way be devised for paying for the honor, while still permitting an indigent member to retain his dignity among his peers? Perhaps, before the Sabbath or Yom Tov, a congregant who desires to be called to the Torah could be asked to visit the synagogue's office, place whatever he can afford in the pushkah ? the charity box ? and inform the gabbai that he was doing so for the express purpose of being ?Levi,? ?Revii,? or whatever. If he is particularly entitled to the honor because of a joyous event or of his observance of a parent's yarzheit, he could then have precedence over others, but if no such person declared himself, then honors could be apportioned on a first come basis and on whether or not he'd recently received such an honor, regardless of the actual amount of his donation. Perhaps the amount raised in this way would be less than through the auctioning process, but how much more honorable would the process be!
In Numbers 30:2‑3, we read:
And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded. When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.
To this, there is the following commentary in Me'Am Lo'Ez, The Torah Anthology, Numbers, page 309:
It is clear then to what danger a person exposes himself by uttering a vow. Not even for purposes of giving charity, therefore, should he make a formal pledge, rather he should give without making a prior commitment. If making a pledge cannot be avoided ? for instance(s) [sic] when a collecting [sic] is made in the synagogue, he should add in an undertone, ?bli neder? (without it being a vow [sic]).
May the new year bring us all peace, good health, and honor in all our endeavors!
@AUTHINFO = Nechamah Reisel is a regular contributor to The Jewish Review.