Exercise your Judaism with impact investing

It’s time to break up the monopoly around Jewish practices. Most Jews will agree that observing halachic commandments such as shabbat, kashrut, and chagim, is the common form of Jewish practice. However, by limiting the conversation to obeying Jewish law we risk alienating large segments of the community that find it hard to connect with these practices. If Judaism, as both a culture and a religion, is to maintain its relevance to the greater Jewish population, it’s time to ask ourselves what it means to live a Jewish life outside a synagogue in the 21st century. How do Jewish values play a meaningful role in our everyday personal and professional lives?

Investing is not typically considered a religious practice. At best, it may be subject to religious constraints. However, the emergence of impact investing, defined as an investment approach that intentionally seeks to create both financial returns and measurable positive social or environmental impact, has the power to create a new dynamic between Jewish practices and investing, one that infuses meaning into a typically an individualistic practice.

I am not suggesting that impact investing is inherently a Jewish practice, but rather that impact investing enables investors to exercise their values, Jewish or otherwise, using their capital. Many large asset management firms, including BlackRock, Bain Capital, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and others, have recognized the powerful potential of bringing meaning into the practice of investing, and have launched their own initiatives in the field. Currently estimated at US $50 billion, the impact investing market is expected to reach US $0.5-1 trillion by 2020.

There are several ways in which impact investing can bring Jewish values into our everyday lives. First, by encouraging investors to ask difficult questions and contemplate what Jewish values mean to them. Second, by asking investors to actively apply those values through informed perusal of relevant investment opportunities. Third, by requiring investors to commit time, energy, and capital to promoting those values. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, impact investing opens the door to community engagement, discussion, and action around shared Jewish values.

Impact investing should be differentiated from other types of values-based investing. Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) consists of a negative screen of, or divestment from, tobacco, guns, and other harmful commodities. Yet another form of values-based investing, dubbed Sustainable Investing, encourages investors to consider companies’ Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices. Multiple mutual funds and ETFs offer religious investors, be they Christian, Muslim, or more recently, Jewish, the opportunity to align their investments with their faith using negative screens and ESG standards. But Impact investing is something else; it’s about actively pursuing one’s values and working to solve a social or environmental issue using market mechanisms.

To do this, we have to begin with a conversation about Jewish values. Some quintessential Jewish values such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), zedek (justice), and gmilut chasadim (acts of kindness) lend themselves easily to impact investing. Imagine investing in a company that provides much-needed healthcare to the developing world or education to underserved populations. Other values such as Shabbat or tshuva (repentance) may be harder to picture, but that’s not to say they cannot be served using market mechanisms. Impact investing can embrace a plurality of Jewish values and perspectives, allowing investors to join together and co-invest around shared values.

Once we’ve established the values we want to pursue, it’s time to identify investments. This is no easy task, and it requires careful due diligence. In the case of direct investing, this means identifying companies that can benefit most from the investors’ knowledge, skill set, connections, and capital. To be sure, this type of investing is not for everyone. But for those who have the capital and capacity, impact investing offers a new and exciting way of practicing Jewish values. Others have an important role to play in the larger conversation around what impact investing with Jewish values looks like and how to encourage more entrepreneurs to tackle some of our planet’s toughest challenges. As this field grows, there will be additional investment opportunities for different types of investors.

While impact investing can serve many Jewish values, one value that stands out as particularly relevant is the connection with the State of Israel. As Jewish communities around the world are torn apart by the constant debate over Israel’s political and security predicaments, impact investing offers an opportunity for a new dialogue, one focused on mutual Jewish values. It’s time to redefine the relationship with Israel not as one imposed by lineage, but as an authentic bond with an entity that encourages the practice of shared values. Actively investing and growing value-aligned Israeli companies is a unique opportunity to create a new form of kinship between the state of Israel and Jews in the diaspora.

We cannot ignore the changes occurring in the Jewish world over the past decades. According to 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, 69% of American Jews consider living a moral life an essential part of being Jewish, versus 19% that consider observing Jewish law essential. Impact investing offers a new way of engaging large segments of the Jewish community in a discussion on what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. We should embrace this opportunity by starting the conversation in our communities.

About the Author
Avi Deutsch is the Co-Founder and CEO of LAVAN, a not-for-profit organization advancing the ecosystem of impact investing with Jewish values.