My first encounter with the concept of personal, charitable giving took place when I was a small child, walking through the streets of Brooklyn with my grandfather, an immigrant from Ukraine.
As we made our way through the cluster of stores in the neighborhood center (back when Waldbaums was its crown jewel), we walked past a man sitting on the curb with his hand outstretched, asking for money.
“Don’t give to them,” my grandpa said, and continued walking.
And that was that. I didn’t question.
Living in low-income housing at the edge of East New York, my grandparents weren’t in much of a position to give. But that didn’t hinder the immense sense of generosity they bestowed upon their loved ones. My childhood memories are colored by feelings of sustained, harmless indulgence; coddling to the point where I was blissfully ignorant of my family’s financial standing. Gelt, gifts, summers in the Catskills – all contributed to a vastly sheltered existence. I thought we were rich until a schoolmate rudely told me otherwise.
But compared to some, we may as well have been. My family, like many other immigrant families, struggled to make ends meet in America. As a child growing up in an insular community of Soviet Jews, there wasn’t much talk of charity or philanthropy, because the focus had always been on overcoming our hardships – the hardships of language, assimilation, and building a community from scratch. But once basic needs were met and exceeded, the community did not adopt a practice of personal giving. In many ways, my grandfather’s message of “don’t give to them” is still a prevailing sensibility, particularly among the older generation.
Unlike many American Jews, Jews from the FSU did not grow up with an institutionalized tenet of personal giving. The concept of tzedakah, a fundamental Jewish value, was (and in many ways, still is) as foreign to Soviet Jewry as the rituals they learned as new immigrants. A more salient factor is one of sheer cultural difference: a survey of the Charitable Aid Foundation (CAF) reported that 5 percent of the Russian population gave money in 2011 – a miniscule amount, compared to the 60 percent reported in America. Even more telling, is the 76 percent charitable giving rate reported among American Jews in 2012.
Russian-speaking Jews are not accustomed to donating money largely because Soviet culture didn’t foster a culture of giving. According to one source, the reasons for the low level of charitable giving in Russia include “general poverty, aversion to the Soviet ideal of emphasizing social interests over individual concerns, fear that contributions will be misused by corrupt individuals, a lack of faith in nonprofit organizations, and the absence of tax benefits for contributions.” Despite this, Russian Jewish community organizations are doing their best to thrive – a virtually impossible feat, were it not for the financial support of major philanthropies like Genesis Philanthropy Group and UJA Federation of New York. But fundraising is as essential to community organizations as tzedekah is to Judaism. A personal gift is both a mitzvah and a show of purpose. With every personal gift, we grow stronger as a community.
In order to reform old attitudes, young people must be agents of change. Just as youth in parts of the FSU are educating their parents about Jewish traditions, young people in the states and abroad can work to ensure that the spirit of charity, philanthropy, and even volunteerism is honored by future generations. We’ve witnessed a lot of that already: after Hurricane Sandy, for example, there was a massive outpouring of support from young people in the community. But there is plenty more that can be done on a regular basis. The spirit of giving cannot develop and flourish unless it stops being seen as a favor and starts being regarded as a duty.
My family came from a place where volunteerism was mandated and philanthropy didn’t exist; the socialist position was that all needs of the people would be met by the state. But this is a new era, and dated Soviet mentality needs to be tossed aside. The bootstrapping mindset that pulled so many of our immigrant families up out of poverty needs to be applied in some capacity to the pressing needs of our community, as well as those around us – both Jews and non-Jews alike.
This article was reprinted with permission from eJewishPhilanthropy.