Erica Brown

We Need Jewish Micro-Giving

Today’s airline industry has suspended reality as we know it. Some months ago, I was told that my wooden garden ornament was a weapon when it was actually a large wooden tulip with a stem. TSA would not let me through. I have to speak to the NRA about this.

Going through security, I read the bold warning sign about liquids. This includes peanut butter. I don’t know what brand you buy, but when I take off the lid off my peanut butter and turn it upside down, nothing moves. In the liquid, gas, solid categorization we learned in sixth grade science, my peanut butter is definitely a solid.

Flying has also introduced another reality. Today, if you pay extra, you can virtually skip the security lines altogether. Airlines are very careful to distinguish different levels of fliers with special privileges, making economy fliers feel more diminished than before. They take away your legroom and then ask you to pay an extra $39 for the inches that used to be free. Or you can amputate. Your choice. On a recent flight to the Midwest, I heard this announcement made loud and clear after take-off: “We’d like to give a special welcome to all of our gold and platinum fliers today.” I waited for them to welcome the rest of us in the cheap seats. I am still waiting.

In the midst of trying to juggle a bag, a medium (very large) Starbucks coffee and a carry-on, my briefcase tipped over right at the entrance to the plane. The steward inches in front of me was busy stirring a drink for one of his first-class passengers. He made no effort to help, not even a suggestion of help.

These kinds of financial demarcations that have gone “public” — like paying to jump the cue at Disney World — are appearing everywhere. You can buy the privilege of being first and being special. Pay up and you get instant status and rewards. I don’t mind that money can buy love. My concern is for those who are still paying something — and maybe even a lot, but not enough in someone else’s estimation to get any love.

And this kind of thinking has subtly crept into many aspects of Jewish organizational life today. Donate more and get more love.  Pay full tuition, and you may get more attention. Most leaders — professional and lay — may give more love to big donors. They may not even realize it is happening. But ask those who are not a name on any plaque how they feel in their interactions with a particular Jewish organization, and they may answer with one word: “Invisible.”

No one should be invisible.

One of my favorite chasidic stories (this could be made up) is the story of a young yeshiva student who showed up barefoot at the door of the wealthiest man in town. He needed a little money to buy shoes. The rich man slammed the door in his face. Many years later, the yeshiva student had become a famous rabbi and Jewish scholar. He visited the town where he had studied in his youth. A crowd came out to greet his train. Among the well-wishers was the wealthy man who had long since forgotten the incident. He approached the scholar and offered to be the patron for his next book. The rabbi turned to him, looked him in the eye and said, “No thank you. But there was a time when you could have had me for a pair of shoes.”

Too many leaders and too many boards spend too much time cultivating relationships with a payoff, raising big money and not necessarily engaging in community building on every level. We need to spend more time and thought engaging more people in our missions and expanding donor bases with smaller donations. Political campaigns have benefited enormously from micro-giving, helping people feel that they are part of the energy and the community and not merely a pledge card with a pulse.

It is time we asked ourselves what we are doing to make the invisible more visible in our organizations. I don’t know if Adam and Eve flew first-class or business, but I do know that everyone — even those in coach — is created in God’s image.

Thanks for flying. 

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).