This Shavuot, Recognizing and Sharing Abundance

Less than three weeks ago, 6,000 heads of state and NGO leaders converged upon Istanbul, Turkey, for the first-ever United Nations World Humanitarian Summit, where they discussed the pressing issues of disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Among those represented at this prestigious and unprecedented gathering was a variety of Jewish and Israeli nonprofit organizations belonging to OLAM‘s shared umbrella.

Those familiar with the inspiring and oftentimes high-profile work of such organizations might be surprised to learn that Israeli citizens donate very little to international relief efforts,as compared to their counterparts in other OECD countries.

In 2013, Professor Hillel Schmid and Hanna Shaul Bar-Nissim of Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Philanthropy reported that less than 1% of Israelis donate to organizations operating abroad. Of those who do give internationally, the average donation is 10 cents per capita compared with $20 by the Dutch and $200 by Norwegians. In the aggregate,a mere 0.1% of charitable dollars raised in Israel are allocated to disaster relief, compared with 5% in the United States, 9% in Britain, 13% in Italy, 38% in the Netherlands and a whopping 48% in Belgium.

With little homegrown support, Israeli humanitarian aid organizations, such as those featured at the recent summit, are left knocking on the doors of foundations and Jewish communities overseas. At the time of Schmid and Bar-Nissim’s study, only 6% of the annual budgets of Israeli humanitarian aid organizations came from Israeli private and business sectors.

Conjecturing as to why Israelis give so little to these type of organizations, Professor Schmid cited archaic Israeli laws, which fail to grant tax exempt status to donations going abroad — laws that have been subsequently overturned in a remarkable advocacy campaign spearheaded by the umbrella organization, Society for International Development Israel.

However, Schmid speculated that other deeper causes underlie this behavior: “It seems the Israeli public still isn’t ripe for donating internationally. It probably considers itself a beneficiary, not a donor or a volunteer … At this stage, we expect to receive from the world more than we give back.”

Schmid seems to imply that, while Israel joined the OECD in 2010, the not-so-distant memory of being a developing country, coupled with the fact that Israel is currently the poorest among OECD countries, has left a deep imprint on its citizenry. Although objective standards point to Israel’s relative wealth, our prosperity feels precarious. We walk around with a sense of scarcity, not of abundance.

In the 2013 book Scarcity,Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir demonstrate how scarcity, defined as “having less than you feel you need,” is myopic.  It prioritizes immediate needs over long-term goals.  It prefers the self over the stranger.While this mindset can yield positive results, driving people to manage resources more effectively, it also has its costs.  It makes people underestimate the manifold blessings in their lives and neglect responsibilities to those less fortunate.

It’s extremely hard to shake a scarcity mindset.  Ask anyone who lived through the Great Depression or the austerity period in Israel. Long after the fridge is full and the bank account in the black, resources continue to be seen as limited and accessing them a zero-sum game.

This week, Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday that challenges the scarcity mindset.

The Torah tells us little about this festival — not its precise date, or the historic event it commemorates.  The one thing it does share is that Shavuot is a celebration of abundance: “When you come into the land which I give you and reap its harvest, then you shall bring the sheaf of the first of your harvest to the priest (Leviticus 23:10).”

On Shavuot, the ancient Israelites brought several offerings to the Temple, foremost among them the “first fruits,” a selection of the choicest produce of the field. Though most Temple sacrifices were not accompanied by a special declaration, people bringing the first fruits were given a script to read, placing their own bounty within the wider context of Jewish history: “My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt … the Egyptians dealt ill with us and afflicted us … and we cried unto the LORD … and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand … and He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey … And now, behold, I have brought the first fruit of the land (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).”

It would be hard to fault the ancient Israelites for having a scarcity mindset. After generations of Egyptian slavery, followed by years in the desert, it would be natural for them to experience the world from a place of deprivation.

Yet, the first fruits declaration challenges such thinking.  It acknowledges that, in the not-too-distant past, the Jews were a landless, oppressed people. But, it forces its reciters to move beyond a feeling of scarcity and to recognize that their status has changed in significant ways. No longer wanderers, they are sovereign.Theirs is a land of milk and honey and they should feel a sense of profound gratitude.

With this new mindset comes a fresh set of responsibilities.  Immediately after describing the first fruits declaration, the Torah enjoins Shavuot celebrants to “rejoice in all the good which the LORD your God has given you … the Levite, and the stranger that is in your midst.” The Torah seems to be saying that it is not enough to shift one’s self-perception from scarcity to abundance.  One needs to share one’s plenty with others.

On Passover, we remember that we were strangers in a foreign land. On Shavuot, we recognize that we have a land with strangers in our midst — strangers worthy of our kindness and consideration. The transition from Passover to Shavuot, from scarcity to abundance, from developing country to OECD member, is not an easy one. But, we must make this transition if we want to live up to our full potential — as individuals and as a people.

About the Author
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of OLAM, a collaborative venture and joint platform for promoting global Jewish service. Prior to OLAM, Dyonna served as Director of Education and Service Learning at The Jewish Agency; Executive Director of Bema'aglei Tzedek, an Israeli social change NGO; and co-founder of Siach, a global network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals. A frequent lecturer, she was named "one of Israel's 50 most inspiring women" by Nashim magazine in 2015.