It was the Super Bowl that instigated the discussion. On the recent Super Bowl Sunday, a rabbi friend in the community expressed chagrin and astonishment that people who live in our communities had actually made use of or leased private planes as well as conventional modes of transportation to fly to Arizona to attend the Super Bowl. “Within just a few blocks of their homes people are unable to put food on the table for their children or themselves,” he said. And he added, “The money spent by our people on the Super Bowl could have solved a lot of urgent problems.”
I tried to explain that I thought the conversation was more theoretical than practical. I also told him that without thorough research on the subject, it is safe to speculate that those who spent about a quarter million dollars or so buying tickets and attending the Super Bowl are also committed on a regular basis to giving inordinately large sums of money to charity, as well. In other words, I argued, it was not a choice between either the Super Bowl or helping people who are going hungry.
The rabbi heard me, but just couldn’t get over that members of our community would commit that kind of money to a football game. He may have a point, but he also may not be able to relate effectively to the different lifestyles that are out there and are still compatible with being a shomer Torah u’mitzvos. Certainly there is a great and overt need that exists, and you don’t have to have a creative imagination or go too far to search for it. The need exists right here in plain view, and each of us, of course, on our own level is required to do our part to help out.
At the same time, the Torah stipulates that the most you are required to give to charity from your earnings is 20 percent. What you do with the other 80 percent is solely your business, so long as it’s legal and proper. At the same time, we are b’nei rachmanim, known for our proclivity toward sensitivity and sympathy. So based on that assessment, I suppose, it is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the concept of spending large sums of money on a football game while somewhere, just a few blocks from where we live, someone cannot pay his electric bill and they are threatening to turn his lights or his heat off and leave him in the dark and the cold.
The existence of these contradictory circumstances is indeed difficult to fathom. But where does it start and, more interestingly, where does it end? Years ago, I heard a story about a well-known international philanthropist whose mother took ill while visiting Israel over Pesach. She was rushed to a hospital near Tel-Aviv, where a quick medical response saved her life. The story made the Israeli press and people associated with this institution were giddy over fact that these events would create a relationship between this hospital and the family involved.
One of the sons of this woman called one of the board members of this hospital to tell him how grateful they all were that such a fine institution exists and how pleased they were with the great professionalism and medical expertise of the hospital. He expressed assurance to the board member that after the holiday he would express his family’s gratitude in a material fashion. Shortly after yom tov, a check for $1,000 arrived in the New York office of this Tel Aviv hospital. The way the story was told to me, people were flabbergasted, stunned, and shocked. You save the life of a woman—the matriarch of a family known for distributing millions to tzedakah—and this is what you get?
A few weeks later, a mutual friend of the hospital and the family reached out to try to get an explanation. People involved with the institution were expecting $100,000 or at least $50,000. But $1,000? What was going on? Shortly thereafter the hospital received an explanation. And that was that the family, as a matter of priority, was dedicated to supporting Jewish education and not health care, so as a matter of policy this was all they could do at that time.
And that’s the way it remained. The hard lesson is that regardless of how much money is out there—and it is certainly billions of dollars—it simply cannot fully allay or solve every personal or communal financial problem. Why are so many yeshivas having such a tough time paying bills and making their payrolls here and elsewhere around the country? Is there anything more important than seeing to it that our yeshivas—where our children study Torah—are financially solvent?
Further, on this subject of prioritized philanthropy, an issue that needs to be addressed just as urgently is how we give money to far-away institutions—whether in the U.S., Israel, or elsewhere—while those closest to us suffer grievously. This debate surfaces every now and then and is particularly relevant to the Five Towns, which is arguably the fundraising capital of the world. There is a plethora of organizations and causes that parade nonstop through this area—some known and many unknown—who walk away from our communities with not a paltry sum that certainly could be put to good use locally.
The few times over the last few years that this topic was brought up in these pages, the discussion usually got bogged down in technicalities and the interpretation of what constitutes a local organization. Those involved in the discussion on a serious basis note that being a “local” organization or yeshiva cannot only mean being a yeshiva, kollel, or organization that is geographically local. They say that certain yeshivas—for example, Lakewood, Chaim Berlin, or the Mir—should be considered local by the mere fact that so many people who live here attended those yeshivas. It’s a valid argument, but at the same time serves to undermine the effort to build up local institutions.
I’ve been told that there is a system in some other philanthropically active communities, where there is a tax levied on organizations that come into the community to fundraise. If it works somewhere, there may be hope that it will work elsewhere in time. But it’s unlikely that we can ever institute this kind of policy here as one unified community. That is to say that, while all our mini-communities are active in supporting all kinds of institutions, I believe that the exceptions that would need to be made and the heterogeneous nature of our sliver of the globe will make any kind of policy of this nature impossible. Keeping organizations out won’t work. If we can, for starters, levy a tax on outside fundraising, that might demonstrate hope for our local schools and organizations.
So while we can try to channel the flow of tzedakah in a direction that best benefits those closest to home, we certainly cannot in any way, shape, or form influence how philanthropists or others spend their non-charitable income. No matter how much money is given, here and in Israel, there will always be a need that is not adequately addressed. And that may just be the nature of our reality-based imperfect world outside the confines of the fantasy-like environment of the Super Bowl.