In America, New Levels of Generosity

Perhaps helped with several mega-gifts, American donors in 2015 were more generous than ever, according to the 61st issue of “Giving USA,” the annual report on charitable activity in the United States.

Total giving surpassed $373.3 billion, with several categories tracked by the report reflecting very significant increases in giving — both in real dollars as well as in inflation-adjusted dollars. Other figures of note:

Two-thirds of the $373 billion came from living individuals, while another $31.76 billion came from bequests and other legacy gifts; the largest share of the donations — $119.3 billion — went to the country’s houses of worship (including synagogues), reflecting the most money the religion category  has ever received; corporate  philanthropy — $18.45 billion — comprised only 5 percent of 2015 giving; and arts and cultural nonprofits saw a 20 percent increase in giving, making it the seventh-largest category that donors support.

These points should reflect significant optimism about the health of the country’s economy as we rebound from the Great Recession, knowing that giving is always considered a lagging indicator since philanthropy is usually the last obligation that people consider when times are tough.

The one aspect of giving that attracted the most attention  revolved around donor-advised funds, essentially a bank account for future giving by donors. The flourishing of such funds has caused a decrease in giving to America’s family foundations, and this has prompted some concerns about oversight of the funds at the federal level. Still, we are seeing — on average — approximately 22 percent of donor-advised assets distributed to legitimate charities, a figure substantially higher than minimum-required payouts from foundations.

What does the “Giving USA” report mean to Jews?

It is a wake-up call that giving is very much alive and well. But most nonprofits are still uncomfortable with changing their messages to attract more widespread support. In addition, while some of the wealthiest Jews contribute to Jewish priorities, they also direct enormous sums to museums, medical  research and higher education. Perhaps reflective of this, giving to Jewish Federations  nationwide — when taken over a 25-year period — has declined by 37.6 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.

I’d suggest that we collectively consider what could happen to total giving if each of us gave up a simple extravagance each week — such as  a $5 cup of Starbucks coffee  — and directed those funds  to philanthropy. With that very easy move, every Jewish nonprofit would see an immediate infusion of support, and the figures that “Giving USA” reports in the future would change markedly.

Robert Evans, who sits on the editorial review board of Giving USA, is founder of Evans Consulting Group, a Willow Grove, Pa.-based firm that helps  nonprofits address their strategic and fundraising goals.

The Importance of the Past Parshat Korach

Kushner,-Rabbi-StevenChadeish yameinu k’kedem, “Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). Perhaps not as dramatic as “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear” (from the opening sequence of “The Lone Ranger”), but the sentiment is the same. Simply put, the past was better than the present.

It’s a common theme for the wilderness generation. Recently freed of an oppressive existence, the Israelites are hard-pressed to adjust to the uncertainty of freedom. From the very moment of their redemption at the sea, they yearn for the clarity of the past. Whether it is a lack of water or food or a wanting for a more varied diet, they complain. They grumble. In time, they will even rebel. And throughout it all, their mantra is a constant: Life was better in Egypt.

If there’s one thing we Jews have learned and embraced as mitzvah,  it is the  holiness of  remembering.

 

The nostalgia crosses into the surreal, the absurd, even the shameful. Egypt is remembered for its good food, “… the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5). And the worst, at least to my eyes, comes in this week’s reading (Numbers 16:13) when Dathan and Abiram pose the heretical: “Is it not enough that you have brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey?”

The equating of Egypt with the Land of Israel is more than just poetic license, as if they were just trying to be sarcastic. Theirs was the perversion of memory. As with the revisionist historians of today, with Holocaust deniers and those who distort the past for their own benefit, the sin of those rebels was much deeper than the story suggests.

No one likes to be reminded about the failures and pains of the past. But there are some things that need remembering. There are some moments in history and some moments in our own lives that we must remember as they were. Without sugarcoating.

If there’s one thing we Jews have learned and embraced as mitzvah, it is the holiness of remembering. This is an  essential part of the lesson of the story of Korach, Dathan and Abiram. There’s a reason we read it every year. Like the plating of the altar with their fire pans, it comes as a constant reminder that some things must be remembered exactly for what they were.

Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding  his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J. A  version of this article first appeared  on reformjudaism.org.

The JCC’s Slippery Slope

We must always give credit to the leadership and dedicated staff and volunteers of The  Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and to its affiliated agencies. Baltimore has been extremely fortunate in building a solid Jewish infrastructure, and the Jewish community is known as one of great kindness.

Every Jewish Baltimorean must support and volunteer to work on behalf of our fine community. However, there is one terrible black mark. A recent and unfortunate decision by our Jewish Community Center board is the result of a slippery slope in the desecration of our Sabbath.

It started in 1978 and continued in 1997 when the JCC board voted to open the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC on Shabbat. With the guidance of Rabbi Herman Neuberger and other community rabbis, we mobilized the entire community against it. A powerful letter written by community leader Leroy Hoffberger in 1997 with Neuberger’s guidance and influence was successful in keeping the JCC closed on Shabbat. We were successful in preserving its sanctity.

Years later, there was a negotiated settlement to open the outdoor facilities only on Shabbat afternoons. Here began the slippery slope. It was agreed to never open an Associated agency building on Shabbat. In 2009, the issue once again surfaced. I helped organize a rally at Northwestern High School for over 4,500 attendees, a rally  organized to celebrate the sanctity of Shabbat. Unfortunately, the Owings Mills JCC proposed to open the building from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. as not to conflict with Saturday morning services. And now in 2016, the JCC board has voted to open on Shabbat mornings as well.

Shabbat is a pillar of Judaism. Opening an Associated facility on Shabbat is halachically wrong, and it will ultimately weaken the Jewish infrastructure of the Baltimore community.

Hashem gave us the gift of Shabbos, and we must observe and protect this special gift. No good can come out of this communal rejection of proper Shabbat observance.

The JCC leadership and its board fail to understand that the Shabbat communal observance is key to our religion and  heritage. We are to protect the Sabbath, but, in fact, the Sabbath protects us. As assimilation and intermarriage plague our Jewish existence and identity, opening a JCC or any Associated building on Shabbat destroys our Jewish heritage. It teaches our children wrong Jewish values, and it transgresses one of our 10 commandments.

I have always applauded the wonderful work of The Associated. But I am very disappointed in what I consider a very slippery slope. This current decision is a huge mistake, and it damages the reputation of Jewish Baltimore.

Eli W. Schlossberg is an area freelance writer and the author of “The World of Orthodox Judaism.”

A Shining Light

Editorial Director

Editorial Director

This has certainly been a summer of transition for Jewish Baltimore, with departures of top officials at community institutions and area nonprofits. Earlier this month, the JT profiled Art Abramson, who stepped down in May after almost 26 years leading the Baltimore Jewish Council as its executive director. Two weeks later, we featured a cover story on Barbara Levy Gradet, who ended her 12-year tenure at the helm of Jewish Community Services.

As you’ll read this week, we’ve turned our attention to Dr. Steven Sharfstein, the longtime CEO of the Sheppard Pratt Health System. Sharfstein, who just last month began a two-year term as president of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, has been leading the Quaker-inspired psychiatric institution for 25 years. He handed over the reins to incoming CEO Dr. Harsh K. Trivedi on Thursday.

Though impossible to have been predicted, the timing of Sharfstein’s departure — and the focus on a health system that has become a leader in Maryland on addiction treatment, counseling and special needs education — comes amid a flurry of attention nationwide on issues pertaining to mental health. Some of that attention has been understandably forced by tragedies, the mass shootings in California, Connecticut and Florida all highlighting the dangers that exist when psychological problems go untreated.

But more important has been the growing societal acceptance of mental health as a priority, with legislation mandating insurance coverage and lobbying groups pushing for workplace accommodations for the mentally ill.

When Sharfstein arrived as medical director and vice president in 1986, the then-Sheppard Pratt Hospital had an average inpatient stay of 80 days. Today, the health system, which under Sharfstein’s watch has grown to 38 sites, has an average inpatient stay of nine-and-a-half days and a robust outpatient program. Indeed, Sharfstein and Sheppard Pratt have done much in our state to shine a light on mental illness, changing our perception of the mentally ill from pariahs to family members and neighbors.

Although at Sheppard Pratt, such a focus is a Quaker ideal, it also happens to be a very Jewish one as well. Acceptance of those suffering, devoid of judgment, is what has moved our community to acknowledge the tragedy of suicide as, in many cases, a consequence of mental illness. It’s also moving the needle on how we as a society approach addiction as a mental health problem instead of a criminal justice one.

We as a community have much more to do when it comes to making compassion the order of the day, but in presiding over the expansion of Sheppard Pratt, Dr. Steven Sharfstein has more than done his part.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com

The Lesson: Case Aside, Passive Grasshopper-y Lives Parshat Shelach; Numbers 13:1-15:41

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiIn the process of becoming a nation, the Jewish people committed any number of sins, but one in particular, as recorded in this week’s portion, Shelach, dwarfs all others.

The events are as follows: G-d commands Moses to appoint men to explore the land they will be settling — a reasonable request. And so Moses appoints 12 princes to survey the land. After 40 days, they return with their report. As it turns out, the report is phrased in a way that sours the spirit of the  people, and instead of being  excited about the prospects of the new land, they let out a great cry. As a result of this wail, the midrash tells us that G-d decides that if they think they have something to cry about now, let them wait. And so this date, the 9th of Av,  becomes fixed in the Jewish calendar, reserved for mourning major national tragedies such as the destruction of both Temples and the exile of the Jews from Spain 500 years ago.

To understand the nature of their sin, we have to look more closely at the events recorded in the portion of Shlach. The report’s opening phrase evokes the splendor of the Promised Land: “Indeed it’s a land of milk and honey,” an expression that has virtually become synonymous with the land of Israel. Displaying the enormous fruits of the land, we can safely conclude from their opening words that the spies had no doubts about the land’s fertility. One would be hard-pressed to find in their entire report something against the land itself. True, “the people living in the land are aggressive and the cities are large and well-fortified. We also saw the giants there” is what they say, but are these words against the land?

If the sin of the people wasn’t against the land, perhaps it was against G-d? But they never actually say that  G-d is wrong nor do they deny that this is the land promised to them by G-d. In fact, using the expression “milk and honey” reaffirms G-d’s promise to Moses at the Burning Bush: “I will bring you to a land of milk and honey.”

If we cannot pin their rebellion against G-d or against the land, what are we left with?

 

Tragedy erupts not so much when  others take a  sudden dislike to us, but when we dislike ourselves and become  paralyzed and  passive as a result.

 

A clue can be found if we take a look at the verse which speaks of the land consuming its inhabitants: “They began to speak badly about the land that they had explored. They told the Israelites, ‘The land that we crossed to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants. All the men we saw there were huge. While we were there we saw Nephilim. …  We felt like tiny grasshoppers. That’s all that we were in their eyes.”

But if the land consumes its inhabitants, how is it possible that the people are huge? There should be no one alive, let alone giants and sons of the Nephillim?! As Nachmanides points out (13:32), a poor, weak land cannot produce people strong in stature. Implicit in Nachnanides’ words is that the land is not for average people. And this is the heart of the problem.

Notice the sequence. “There we saw the giants. We felt like grasshoppers” is followed by “that’s all we were in their eyes.” What this points to is  a common phenomenon — how we see ourselves determines how others end up seeing us. If you’re a grasshopper in someone else’s eyes, obviously he’ll crush you without a second thought, and once you think of yourself as a grasshopper, the rest of the world  seconds the motion.

The image of a grasshopper is striking, capturing the essence of exile: a tiny creature at the mercy of all. “We were like grasshoppers” means that the scouts still think like slaves in Egypt, seeing themselves as despised, dependent creatures. How could they have possibly believed in themselves? And if one doesn’t believe in oneself, one usually assimilates, gives oneself over to a higher power, decides either to return to Egypt — which Datan and Aviram always wanted to do — or to remain paralyzed and inactive in the desert. In  accepting defeat rather than displaying defiance, the Jew is meekly surrendering to fate as it “hops” all over him.

Now we see how in the scouts’ sin lies the seed of the destruction of both Temples. Tragedy erupts not so much when others take a sudden dislike to us, but when we dislike ourselves and become paralyzed and passive as a  result. The sin of the scouts is not in the terrible report they bring but in their vision of themselves, a perception that becomes contagious and that ends up as a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. As James Baldwin said so aptly, he could forgive America for enslaving black people, but he could never forgive America for making the blacks feel that they were worthless, that they deserved to be slaves. And that’s precisely what Egypt did to the Hebrews!

In this century, we’ve taken giant steps toward rectifying this distorted vision; but apparently more work needs to be done before the self-image of the grasshopper is gone. Then, even if we live “in a land that consumes” its inhabitants, it only acts as a curse for those who live passive grasshopper-y lives. But for the ex-grasshoppers, ready to take responsibility for the road to redemption, this land can really be a blessing.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Shame on JCC

Unlike the indifference on the part of Adam Hariri, a Park Heights member, regarding the Rosenbloom JCC’s decision to open its doors on Saturday mornings (“JCC’s Shabbat Decision Causes Concern,” June 17), I care!

After reading Rabbi Moshe Hauer’s column, “Shabbos at the JCC: Crossing the Line” (also June 17), I understand the rabbi’s feelings of disappointment. As a relative newcomer to Baltimore, it saddens me to learn that seven years ago, a big schism was created (yes, we are our own worst enemies) during the community debate over Sabbath closure.

After the decision to keep the building open on Sabbath afternoons only, according to Hauer, The Associated made the claim that “the Orthodox had their JCC in the Park Heights building while the Owings Mills campus belonged to the local non-Orthodox population.” As one who uses the Park Heights gym regularly, I can tell you that it is a facility that is enjoyed by both observant and non-observant Jews as well as men and women of all races and creeds.

Talk about unity.

Ironically, an article written by The Associated’s chairman of the board on the very next page of the same  JT issue is titled, “We Are One Community.” Mark Neumann states, “We listen respectfully to one  another’s opinions. … We share the same values even though we may interpret things a bit differently.” Were that the situation, wouldn’t “same values” encompass the 4th Commandment, to remember the Sabbath?

Granted, “remembering” and “keeping it holy” mean different things to different people.  Let me clarify. How one keeps the Sabbath, or not, is his business. Live and let live. And wouldn’t “listening respectfully” imply sensitivity to the observances of the Orthodox community?   I can’t help but wonder why a Saturday morning opening was so important to less observant people (from all the denominations) knowing how painful the original compromise must have been for our sizable religious community.

Associated president Marc Terrill indicates that “the board’s decision hinged on keeping the JCC open as a place for non-observant Jews to spend Shabbat in a Jewish setting.”  Really!  Does he consider the gym a Jewish setting?

What if, in a few years we’re asked to remove the “J” from the JCC? It could be a demand from the federal government threatening to cut off funding or a demand from a prominent Jewish donor to promote ecumenism.  Might it be possible, and might that galvanize our community to unify?

If a Jewish umbrella organization cannot close its doors on a Saturday morning out of deference to the Sabbath and out of sensitivity for the proclivities of some Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews (not to mention because of the origin of The Law), then we have more problems than a Pew or other professional study can begin to tackle statistically.

JT Story Troubling

Shame on you and your staff for publishing “Shooting Brings UMD Students Out of the Closet” (June 24). Was it not tragic and hurtful enough to feel and share the pain of the victims and their families in Orlando, Fla.? Was it not tragic enough that Facebook spreads the vilest gossip to anyone who goes there? Now we have your tabloid, which may still be read by people who don’t look at Facebook, writing all about these very young and hurting men.

I believe that they are confused and going through inexplicable pain (whether they say so or not). These men are barely out of their teenage years and for whatever reason are considering homosexuality or transsexuality. Their choices pain their religious families beyond the straining point. G-d help them all. What if this is a phase, and the right psychotherapist working with these young men could turn them around? No outsider needs to know about another’s shmutz.

Woe to you and your staff for exposing the families publicly. You have compounded their pain and embarrassment multifold.

The Magic of the Cavaliers’ Unlikely Victory

012414_laudau_chaimIt happens so rarely that if you caught the moment, you caught a piece of eternity.

That moment was Sunday night, June 19, when the final buzzer of Game 7 of the NBA finals was heard all around the country. And you caught the magic of that moment, before it dawned on anyone that Cleveland not only had accomplished the unexpected, but also had shocked the sporting world in having achieved the impossible.

History was trashed and forced to absorb the originality, the undescribed reality and the brilliance of that moment, which was that no team, just no team, comes back from a three-games-to-one deficit in a best-of-seven finals to win the NBA championship. Especially against the Golden State Warriors, that newly elevated team of teams that scored a stratospherically high number of 73 wins in a record-breaking regular season, shooting shots with the accuracy of a stealth bomber on steroids and with the expectations that the postseason would be a deliciously simple piece of (cheese)cake.  Even against someone as awe-inspiring as LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.

So much for history! And yet it happened, ever so slowly over the duration of seven games that saw hopes rise and fall and dreams written and rewritten. For the Cavs were just meant to roll over by Game 5 and just add yet another sour disappointment to the ever-elastic list of Cleveland sports disappointments.

But it didn’t happen that way or any way that people were thinking. It happened the way the Cleveland Cavs believed … in LeBron, in their team and in their chance to turn history on its face. And even God seemed to intervene. For in the last four-and-a-half minutes of the final game, the Warriors, not known for missing any shots, just couldn’t hit a basket. It was as if the basket was on Mars. God had intervened and decided it was  LeBron and the Cavs’ time.

And it wasn’t that both teams played brilliantly well throughout the enterprise. But what we spectators were witnesses to were the moments of individual genius, athletic prowess, sports commitment and just plain old determination that made many of the players become supermen and rocketed this championship to a place in eternity.

We will remember this tournament as we tell it, with great pride, to our grandchildren, the brilliance of the play and the sanctity of that moment when the final buzzer was heard as the shot that went around the world, and we all watched  history scream with delight.

Yes, God does sit up in His heavens and laugh!

Chaim Landau is rabbi emeritus of Ner Tamid Congregation.

No Easy Answers in Orlando Bloodbath

Omar Mateen’s massacre of 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., appears to have touched more pressure points than any of the other well-known mass shootings in the last two decades. There is the hate crime of homophobia. Then there is Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in the heat of his attack, raising the specter of a Muslim-American’s “self-radicalization.” There was his everyday violent and erratic behavior, suggesting that mental illness played a role. And there was his easy access to and use of a military-style weapon — unnecessary for ordinary self-defense, hunting or an afternoon on the shooting range.

While each of the foregoing issues is a cause for serious concern, it is simplistic to argue, “The answer is gun control” or “If everyone in that bar was carrying a weapon, this never would have happened.” Moreover, this does not appear to be a case of overseas terrorism and the threat of radical Islam. Mateen apparently got everything he needed right here at home, just like several other well-known domestic terrorists.

Similarly, it’s just not right to blame the carnage on a diagnosis of mental illness and to say that the solution is to mandate treatment for the mentally ill — as the gun lobby does in its opposition to common-sense gun laws. That argument  ignores the problem of military-style weapon availability and stigmatizes those who live with chronic psychological conditions. And it ignores the fact that the overwhelming number of people with mental illness don’t go around shooting people.

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub has sobered a country drunk of the heady progress the LGBT community has made in terms of acceptance, inclusion and same-sex marriage. The Orlando tragedy reminds us that there remain many at the fringes of society who see violence as an effective means of opposing social or cultural progress. Add to that the reported FBI statistics that LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other group — more than African-Americans and more than members of the Jewish community — and we know we have a problem.

Still, we don’t yet know why Mateen did what he did, and it is dishonest to pretend we do. But if all we do in this complex case is blame it on “all of the above” and wash our hands, then there is no chance for the kind of dialogue that is necessary to put a tragedy like this into perspective.

No matter where one comes out on the underlying questions regarding the “why” of Mateen’s actions, we are left with the perplexing and chilling question: What can a society do to prevent people with strong beliefs and haunting demons from taking lives because of them?

UC Irvine Actually Safe Space for Jews

The Jewish students at the University of California-Irvine and our supporters took a strong stand this month, showing our campus community that we will not be intimidated or allow our vocal support for  Israel to be stifled.

Last month, a pro-Israel event sponsored by the UC Irvine student organization, Students Supporting Israel (SSI), with support from Hillel, was targeted by anti-Israel protestors on the UCI campus.

A dozen students had gathered in a classroom to watch the Jerusalem U film, “Beneath the Helmet.” The program was meant to inform young people how their contemporaries in  Israel prepare physically, mentally and emotionally for the awesome task of protecting their country. A screaming mob disrupted the screening, tried to force their way into the room and chased one student into hiding after she had been caught outside when the protestors arrived. Our students and staff had to be protected by campus police.

How ironic that at a sight intended for learning, anti-Israel students tried to shut learning down. Through bullying masquerading as social justice, they sought to make a statement that engagement with Israel will be met with harassment and intimidation.

The incident made news. It scared some people. And it made people question whether pro-Israel students can safely hold events on their own campus.

Three weeks later, the campus and broader communities made a statement of a different kind. More than 400 students, alumni and Jewish community members gathered for a rescreening of “Beneath the Helmet” at the UCI Student Center, on an evening that will be remembered as truly special.

IDF Cmdr. Eden Adler, featured in the film, attended the event and shared his personal story with the audience. We were joined by colleagues and friends from many other  organizations who partnered with us on this event, including Chabad of UCI, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships and the Secure Community Network of Jewish Federations of North America.

While the first screening was met with hostility, the rescreening, nearly 40 times bigger, was peaceful and celebratory.

Our messages that night were clear. The community and the university will not allow our students’ right to engage with  Israel on campus to be curtailed. Freedom of speech and assembly, and the rights to inquire and learn, are fundamental values of UCI that belong not to only some students, but to everyone. Most important, our students stated forthrightly that despite the egregious incident of May 18, they feel safe at UCI. They implored audience members to send their children and grandchildren to UCI in order to grow and strengthen the community of students connected to Israel.

 

Lisa Armony is executive director of Hillel Foundation of Orange County and director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.