Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, December 09, 2002
Okay, here's how I get to find out if I have any readers out there. We're coming up to the end of the year, which means: there's only a few weeks left to give to your favorite charities and have it count for this year's taxes. I'm going to take this opportunity to highlight some of my favorite charities, and I invite my few readers to email me their suggestions.

These are not in any way in order of importance, or in any other order. I've numbered them just for ease of reading. In some cases, there's even more than one charity mentioned per numbered paragraph. So sue me.

If you've been reading the papers, you're surely aware that it's tougher than it used to be to be Jewish and "out" about it on many campuses today. That makes it all the more important for Jewish students to have a place on campus to call home. Usually, that place is funded and run by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Hillel is one of the most effective Jewish organizations around (I know that's not saying much, but still). College is a time when young people are exploring their values; for the first time out from under the aegis of their parents, they get exposed (we hope) to many conflicting ideas about how to live. It's vital that there be a center of Jewish values and life in the lists competing with the other voices.

One of the most horrible things about war in the past century has been: it is increasingly waged against civilians. And one of the most dramatic and devastating consequence of recent wars has been an avalanche of refugee crises. The leading private institution responding to these crises is the International Rescue Committee. This charity has gotten a whole lot bigger in the past 10 years, and it has a lot of prominent supporters. But it's gotten bigger because the demand is enormous. The IRC has always focused on using local people where possible, and on resettlement in the region or elsewhere - the focus is on getting communities functioning again as quickly and sustainably as possible. This is an area that is fraught with political danger; the Hutu genocidaire infiltration of refugee camps in central Africa and the terrorist takeover of Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza and the rest of the territories are extreme examples of the problems with helping refugees. But the IRC does a pretty good job of navigating these minefields, and not being politicized the way, say, Doctors Without Borders is. They do good work in the worst places on earth. And Lord knows, there's a lot of work to be done.

When you support an organization whose product is ideas, you're leveraging your dollars, because these ideas will, if they are good ones and well-communicated, get picked up elsewhere in the public and non-profit sectors. I have a hard time coming up with the name of a think-tank that has had a more dramatic impact on policies I care about than the Manhattan Institute. More than any other organization, this was the incubator for ideas like welfare reform, broken-windows policing - the whole host of policy innovations that changed the urban landscape in the 1990s. Since before September 11th, but with more intense focus since then, they have been forceful advocates for intelligent plans to rebuild the city and liberate its economy. They are, so far as I know, the only right-leaning think-tank focused on urban issues, but their mandate is broader than that. They are now doing battle on the home front in the war on terror, working with police departments around the country to design a database and communication tool for preventing and responding to terrorism modelled on the COMPSTAT system used to great effect in fighting crime in New York. They're also increasingly their profile in Latin America. They are a rare think-tank that is also a do-tank, and the work they are doing has changed and continues to change the fate of urban America.

I've reviewed their work before, and will do so again, as every year my wife and I travel to Canada to take in the theatrical wonders of the Stratford Festival. Located about an hour west of Toronto, Stratford is (apart from its name) an unlikely place to find the premier classical theater company in the Western Hemisphere. But I travel up from New York City - reputed to have something of a theatrical reputation in its own right - for a reason. I am an unabashed bardolator, but even if you aren't you must concede that without Shakespeare, there is no literary tradition, and no theatrical tradition, at least in English. And mercifully, Stratford's productions are largely free of the post-toasty garbledigook, pop-culture referencing and celebrity pandering that overwhelms so many productions at, say, the Public Theater in New York. They put on great plays (mostly; they do many non-Shakespearean productions, and not all of them are wonderful), with great, classically-trained actors, on a world-famous and influential thrust stage, and they do it every year on a grand scale. And they are training future generations of classically-trained actors at the Stratford Conservatory for Classical Training. Some people fight the culture wars by complaining about the cultural decline. Going to, and supporting the Stratford Festival is one way to fight the culture wars with culture.

It's a cliche: give a man a fish, and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and feed him for life. On the international scene, there's one unique organization focused on teaching the fishermen of the future in some of the poorest countries on earth: Technoserve, the charity with probably the dumbest name in the history of philanthropy. Technoserve's mission is to help fledgeling entrepreneurs in the world's poorest countries how to build sustainable businesses, make connections with the global economy, and succeed. They help entrepreneurs with simple capital improvements that make a world of difference in productivity, typically at low cost to Technoserve but overcoming enormous transaction costs that the entrepreneurs would face by themselves. (For example: enabling west-African peanut-butter makers to buy food-processors, which cut the time of producing peanut-butter enormously.) The people who run the organization are typically well-connected businessmen, frequently involved in agriculture, who can offer practical advice and assistance to nascent capitalists. And that's part of the key to their success: they are not trying to change the global economy or fight globalization; they are trying to help poor entrepreneurs plug into that economy and benefit from globalization.

Speaking of capitalism: any believer in freedom and private property will tell you that you take care of what's yours better than you take care of what belongs to someone else - or to no one. That's why my favorite environmental organization is the one that believes in protecting wilderness the old-fashioned way: they buy it. I'm talking about the Nature Conservancy. I've heard people decline to give to them on the grounds that they are already rich. But if you believe in their approach, the richer they are the more you should give to them, because their assets are a measure of their success in acquiring and protecting wilderness areas. Of course, they don't only buy land. They also run a huge scientific enterprise to catalog the biological assets of the land they own, and to identify target areas for conservation. They work with businesses and governments to protect areas beyond the scope of the Conservancy's resources to purchase and protect on their own, to extract economic value from protected areas through science and eco-tourism, to work on environmental questions that extend beyond the mandate of protecting wilderness areas. But in all their efforts, they are guided by a strict attention to solid science and a commitment to working with local communities, governments and businesses, not engaging in ideological warfare with them.

A puzzling trend over the past couple of decades has been the dramatic explosion of respiratory ailments and allergies. It's particularly puzzling since air quality has improved and smoking has declined over this period. One of the leading research institution dedicated to this area of medicine is the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Colorado. They've been rated the top respiratory hospital in America by US News and World Report for each of the past 5 years. Everyone has their own favorite medical charity, usually related to a loved one who suffered from or died from a disease or condition; on my case, I was attracted to National Jewish in part because pulminology was my late brother-in-law's specialty. But be that as it may: they are an impressive organization doing work in a field of growing importance.

On a more parochial note: there are any number of ways to show support for Israel in its time of trial. Three that I would strongly endorse are: the Libi Fund, which provides benefits of various kinds for needy Israeli veterans; Magen David Adom, the Israeli branch of the Red Cross (which has been denied full status within the Red Cross organization for using the Jewish star as a symbol, which one Red Cross functionary compared to using a swastika); and the Israel Crisis Center, which counsels victims of terrorism. Needless to say, these worthy organizations have had too much work of late.

On a far more parochial note: readers of this blog have probably figured out that I am a Conservative Jew who is not fully observant but who has a lot of sympathy for Modern Orthodoxy. One of the leading institutions of Modern Orthodoxy, and one that I have supported, is Ohr Torah Stone, the collection of educational institutions run by Rav Shlomo Riskin. Rav Riskin was the spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan for many years before moving to Efrat to found Ohr Torah Stone. Riskin has taken a lead role in struggles to sustain the Modern Orthodox promise of a traditional Jewish outlook unafraid of and in harmony with modernity. He has been a leader in bringing women into full involvement in traditional Jewish communal life. And, most important, he has built an institution that has had and will have a major role in training the Jewish leaders of tomorrow: rabbis, communal leaders, and so forth. His graduates are comfortable in the most traditional settings and in the most modern ones. And they have spent time on the front lines of the struggle for Jewish communal survival; Efrat is in Judea, within the "consensus" of areas that the vast majority of Israelis (including Ehud Barak in his plan for a Palestinian state) expect and demand to be annexed to Israel as part of any negotiated settlement. That consensus, of course, does not extend to Israel's enemies, who have taken their toll on Efrat, a town that once had very good relations with its Arab neighbors, and now sadly cannot.

Finally, a small organization with a big idea you thought was obsolete: iAbolish, formerly the American Anti-Slavery Group. Slavery, outlawed in the West for about a century and a half, is still practiced widely in parts of Africa. And the true dimensions of modern slavery are more extensive than that: extending to the trade in sexual slaves that is a growing plague Europe and America and is already widespread in Asia. The re-emergence of wide-scale traffic in human beings is one of the more indefensible of the emerging horrors of the new century. The fight to end it - which begins, but does not end, in the gruesome war waged against the Christians of the southern Sudan - is a major humanitarian and moral challenge for our time. These good folks have been leaders in drawing our attention to it.

That's my list - not comprehensive, but a start. I'm open for additional suggestions.