Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, MSW, MPH, Executive Director
Sarah Person, LCSW, President
Geoffrey Lieberman, Treasurer
Martha Harrison, MPH, Secretary
In a world struggling with climate change and extreme financial inequality, it’s time to turn the tithe! Rooted in our ancient cycles of shmita / release, the Jewish practices of just-giving—simple, regular, and fair—are accessible to all of us. The earth can rest from our relentless consumption as we channel more of our money toward the repair of our world. Bringing together concern for the poor and vulnerable with concern for the planet, Generous Justice is the only organized Jewish presence among today’s transformative philanthropy initiatives for just-giving.
The words of the Shema call for love of God “with all your me’od.” Me’od means very-much, and is usually translated in the Shema as strength, might, or power. But ancient rabbis understood this power quite specifically: “Love God with all your money.” Facing their own generations of economic uncertainty, our rabbis responded with a call for regular distributive justice: “Just as each small metal scale joins into a great armor-plate, so with tzedakah each and every coin joins into a great heshbon / accountability.”
The Jewish ethical wisdom of heshbon provides an immediate connection between ecology and economy, spirituality and social change. Every time we open our wallets or check our bank balances, we face choices of heshbon: How are we literally “spending” our lives?
The sage Ben Zoma teaches that the wise are those who learn from every person; the brave are those who control (literally, “occupy”) their own impulses; the rich are those who rejoice in their own portions; and the honorable are those who honor creation and its creatures. This integrated four-fold teaching offers a path to greater personal and communal sustainability. Generous Justice helps participants learn to live more simply, channel our consumer impulses, accept and celebrate our abundance, and make financial decisions that are socially and environmentally sound.
Generous Justice seeks out the dialogue between generations that is essential for learning the lessons of history. While honoring tzedakah collectives, giving circles and other pooled funding efforts, we seek a broader constituency. Our programs and resources provide accessibility and support beyond particular age groups or affluence levels for each participant to expand her or his personal giving capacities. Through study, storytelling, action/reflection and cultural development, participants join a dialogue across millennia of prophets, sages, activists and artists to reclaim the Jewish practices of just-giving.
To extend this wisdom to additional communities of concern, Ways of Peace is currently working toward formal publication and dissemination of the Generous Justice training manual and source book developed for our 2015 leadership training (see below). Our manual shares Jewish wisdom and values through motivational texts and music, gathered and compiled in engaging, accessible formats.
Programs throughout the United States have involved dozens of participants over the past decade. Responses to Generous Justice outreach have been overwhelmingly positive, and many participants have been inspired to connect for follow-up conversations: a young financial services professional speaks of struggling with the culture of Wall Street as the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, while an octogenarian shares experiences of his father's efforts to practice just giving as a small business owner during the Great Depression. Parents of small children (arguably the most challenged demographic on these issues) have been among the most enthusiastic participants.
The first Generous Justice leadership training in August 2015, in partnership with the National Havurah Committee, prepared a multi-generational cohort of change-makers to develop circles for just-giving in their home communities—from coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada. Half of the participants were millennials. Here is how one participant described it:
“As a part of the first Generous Justice training cohort, I gained skills and perspective that are crucial to doing effective work around the touchy subject of money in the Jewish community. Being part of a generationally diverse group allowed me to connect with people unlike myself, heightening my empathy and highlighting the importance of honoring each experience as both unique and valid. Rabbi Regina draws on the wisdom of generations — from the Bible to the Boomers — to create an experience that is at once raw, authentic, deeply Jewish, and downright playful.” —Yael Greenberg, 26
The money dialogue is sensitive and personal, and not all participants want to be identified publicly. The following reflection is from a rabbinical student in a previous pilot program:
"I just wanted to write you a note of personal thanks....I was giving, but without much thought about how much I could afford to give....I will continue to reflect on my giving options, and to focus on one or two areas that I feel strongly about, rather than to feel guilty about not being able to give to everyone who asks....I also will commit myself to actually looking at my expenses each month without judgment, just to assess where I am."
Jewish just-giving wisdom teaches us to separate questions of "how much" to give from questions of "where" to give. Would-be givers are too often paralyzed by charitable-information overload. Yet we contribute to college savings and retirement plans without knowing in advance where the funds will be spent. In the same way, just-giving—simple and fair, with thoughtful adjustments as appropriate—becomes possible when we commit to a regular percentage of income. We can manage tzedakah to put more of our money where our mouths, minds, and hearts are.
Along with his call for tithing, the prophet Malachi highlights the need “to return the heart of parents to children, and the heart of children to their parents." Generous Justice seeks out the powerful money dialogue within and between generations. By creating safe spaces to share our personal money stories, we can move toward more conscious sharing of the money itself.
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