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Upper West Side: The Philanthropists

Susan Reimer-Torn
October 18, 2013
by Susan Reimer-Torn Upper-West-Side2-300x225We are the free-est, most affluent, most powerful Jews to ever walk the planet. The only question is what we want to do with the remarkable blessing of our lives. Not bad for openers. The big burly rabbi is used to working a high-powered crowd. I look around the conference room hosting the Ambassador Club of the American Jewish Joint Distributions Committee (JDC). Here on Central Park West, in the ballroom of one of New York City’s oldest synagogues, the assembled know who they are. JDC Ambassadors is a unique network of caring and visionary individuals and families who provide strategic leadership and support to JDC, the world’s leading humanitarian organization. I am invited even though I don’t belong. The price of entry to this club is a “suggested minimum” of $25,000. Are they thinking that even if I don’t have that kind of money, maybe I can find a few folks who do? I could not promise that. But the Yale-educated, feminist director assures me there are other ways to enrich the Jewish community: The gifts might be creativity or ingenuity, the donation of professional time, or original ideas. Does Judaism Get in the Way or Is It the Way? The question is projected in power-point at the head of the ballroom-turned conference area. (I could improve on that phrasing, but so far no one’s asked me to contribute my copywriting skills.) The hulking, bearded rabbi uses all those superlatives — free’est, most affluent, most powerful — in his opening line to both flatter and provoke the crowd. The JDC works in more than seventy countries to alleviate hunger and hardship. The short video shows the JDC intervention in the aftermath of the 2009 earthquake in Haiti. Children are being measured for prosthetic arms and legs, a school is organized in a refugee camp, hot meals are distributed, a hospital is rebuilt and furnished with supplies, socialites wrap blankets around emaciated black men, and everywhere there are smiles that make you proud to be human. When the lights come on, a classically-tailored woman in the front shoots up her hand. She admits that Haiti was heartwarming and all, but she is “not sure if this is the right form of philanthropy.” She is forthright. “We don’t know these people and we have to worry first about our own survival. I mean if something comes up, will Haiti side with Israel in the U.N?” Ambassadors are committed to JDC’s “smart-giving” principles: fostering grassroots innovation, leveraging partnerships and funds. In my progressive circles, folks would gasp in embarrassment at her sectarianism, but here the respect for “smart-giving” is accorded its due. Another woman counters that these sorts of efforts contribute to our own security by transforming negative views of Israel and Jews in the wider world. But this crowd is not so easily persuaded; they are after all clever folks, many of whom have amassed fortunes by dint of strategic planning. The rabbi asks, “If you take a walk in Central Park and a child falls into the reservoir, are you going to inquire if he’s Jewish before you jump in and save him?” He pauses for a double-check. “How many of you would jump in and save a drowning child?” Almost all the hands, including mine, wave high in the air. “Ok, but what’s Jewish about this?” a gray-haired elder in a suit wants to know. Energized, the rabbi launches into a discussion of what it means “to take the moral high ground as a Jew.” For an experienced religious fundraiser, this is an opportunity for a little biblical exegesis. He reminds us that we are the only tribal people whose account of creation begins not with our own story but with the creation of the entire world and all of humanity. And while he would never expect any of the assembled to take the Genesis story literally, we can still look to this version of creation for meaning. It tells us that our fate is bound up with the fate of others and that all of humanity was created in the image of God. Yes, it’s true that in the next chapters, the Bible gets more parochial with the emphasis on our chosen status among the peoples of the earth. But we need to belong to a particular people, not to shut out the others, but in order to cultivate the values that allow us to be widely effective in tikkun olam (repair of a broken world). The goal of JDC Ambassadors is to make the connection between philanthropists who care — and Jews and others in need around the world. A man with an Eastern European accent speaks soberly about “the allocation of limited resources.” There is buzz of agreement shared among the most affluent ever. “But in the end of days, we need to survive,” calls out the woman in the front. “The end of days?” The rabbi seizes upon it. “That is a reference to messianic times when all the world will be redeemed.” “I meant to say at the end of the day,” she retorts flatly, while he persists in giving her unwanted credit for a meaningful slip of the tongue. I want to ask her why she insists that we need to survive. Has she given that any thought? Do the Jewish people need to survive for survival’s sake? Or do we need to survive because we have something essential to contribute? Something inside urges me to offer my own version of a contribution by speaking up. But I’m not feeling all that free or powerful. I remain quiet and let the others sort it out. Then an elderly man with a distinguished British accent takes the floor. He tells us that he lived through the war in Europe. He tells us this is only about only one thing — our intimate knowledge of suffering and loss. There is no way as Jews we can stand by and allow it to happen to others. Over lunch, the assembled are urged to make their own maps of personal priorities. Who do they look after first: themselves, their families, their neighbors, the Jews, all of humanity? But I don’t see anyone making any maps and there is no insistence on following through with the assignment. Over coffee, we are all thanked for having engaged in the discussion. We are also reassured that the JDC, now celebrating its 100th year, is able to both look after Jews and do the most effective humanitarian work on the planet. “There is a seamlessness,” says the now beaming rabbi, “between being a Jew and being human.” I need to get some air and decide on a walk in Central Park on this balmy autumn day. I recall the famous dictum of Hillel, the Talmudic sage: If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? I’m hoping I don’t run across any drowning children as I slowly wind my way home. Susan Reimer-Torn blogs at and is the author of the upcoming memoir: Maybe Not Such a Good Girl, to be published by Blue Thread, the book imprint of Jewish Currents.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.