Monday, December 27, 2004
It's that time of year again: the end of it. Last chance to make donations to charity that count for this tax year.
I wrote a long piece a couple of years ago detailing several charities that I've been supportive of. Here's a recap, organized by category, with some additional thoughts and mention of other worthy organizations. As always, I'm very interested in hearing from readers about charities they support, as well as hearing anything negative (or positive) about the charities I list below.
DOMESTIC SOCIAL WELFARE
Domestically, I give to a number of organizations with a social welfare orientation. I've tried to support local organizations like the food pantry, meals-on-wheels - that sort of thing. I also give regularly to Mazon, which is a kind of Jewish United Way: they give to mainstream groups addressing various social welfare needs, but because the money comes from Mazon the recipient organizations can presume that the donors are Jewish, which is nice positive publicity for the tribe. I'm sure there are "advocacy" groups that Mazon funds that I don't love, but what can you do? Nothing is perfect.
Recently I learned about and began to support the Doe fund, an innovative charity that employs individuals who are homeless or have come out of prison, helps them develop the discipline and skills to stay at work, and thereby get them back on the road to a healthy, productive existence. I also support the local Habitat for Humanity. In the area of education, I've been supportive of Student Sponsor Partners, though I haven't as yet volunteered to partner up with one of their supported students. This year, I added a number of charities from Noemie Emery's helpful list of organizations that support our servicemen and veterans. And I also learned, through the company I work for (an important client is on the board of the charity), about Shake-a-Leg, which runs a variety of sports and rehabilitation programs for disabled youngsters.
I'm not sure where it properly belongs on this "thematic" list, but I've been a big fan and supporter for a few years of the Manhattan Institute. I'll list it here because a primary reason I'm a supporter is in recognition of their importance in changing New York City's approach to crime and welfare, changes that have revolutionized life in the city. They cover a lot of other ground, though. If you want to get an idea of how much ground, take a look at their website, or subscribe to their publication, City Journal. They are the only organization I know of devoted specifically to urban issues from a more conservative perspective.
INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL WELFARE:
My giving to organizations focused on social welfare in poor countries is dominated by two organizations: the International Rescue Committee and Technoserve. The IRC has expanded enormously in the last two decades, in response to a massive increase in the problem of refugees and displaced persons. They have a huge and important operation in Afghanistan, of course, but they also have massive operations across Africa and elsewhere in Asia and in Europe, and they also run resettlement programs across the Western world. The work they have to do only expands with time. Two specific good things about the organization: they are notable for the percentage of the money they raise that goes to field activities, and they make a great effort to employ locals to the maximum extent possible.
Technoserve, meanwhile, besides having the stupidest name of any charity I've ever heard of, is a classic "teach a man to fish" kind of organization. They help rural communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia improve the productivity of their agriculture and find markets for their produce. This kind of effort is absolutely essential if we're ever going to address the enormous problem of rural poverty in the 3rd world. That poverty is the driver both of mass migration to the already overcrowded and politically unstable 3rd world cities and of mass migration to America and Europe.
I also support the slave-freeing efforts of iAbolish, and the good work of the International Medical Corps.
SCIENTIFIC AND MEDICAL:
I have to admit, scientific and medical charities have not been my primary focus. I support the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, the nation's premier research hospital for respiratory diseases, which have been a growing problem worldwide. I've given to North Shore Long Island Jewish Hospital where there is a fund in memory of my wife's brother, who was a pulminologist there, and to charities involved with pancreatic cancer, which runs in my wife's family. I also support Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which I discuss below under Jewish-oriented charities.
Hey, I support my High School alma mater, the Bronx High School of Science. Does that count?
The two primary charities I support related to the physical environment are the Nature Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance. The Nature Conservancy owns or helps manage huge amounts of land in this country, and consults abroad in numerous countries to replicate what they've done here through similar local groups in each country. They are an old-fashioned conservation group, and they do wonderful work. They had a bit of bad press not long ago because they were entering into trades with their trustees that resulted in a tax writeoff for the trustees associated with a conservation easement for their land. But I'm convinced that these transactions were above-board and entirely within the mission of the organization. It would be a shame if people shied away from this excellent charity because of concerns about these easement transactions.
The Prospect Park Alliance, meanwhile, is the local group responsible for reviving the only major park in Brooklyn. I live right by the park, and use it all the time, and I'm thrilled to be able to contribute to further improvement and maintenance of this beautiful space. The story of how local people saved this park that the city had largely abandoned, and how they continue to make ever larger and more expensive improvements, is a wonderful and inspiring one, the perfect illustration that the spirit of community voluntarism that De Tocqueville so admired in America is alive and well.
We support many of the museums of Brooklyn and Manhattan through memberships. We're also supporters of Brooklyn Information and Culture (BRIC), which sponsors Celebrate Brooklyn, a summer series of concerts and performances which is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. But the overwhelming bulk of our giving in the area of culture is to the Stratford Festival, which I've written about many times in this space. Stratford recently launched a campaign to build their endowment, the For All Time campaign. The endowment supports a number of crucial efforts by Stratford that extend beyond their main stages: the conservatory which teaches classical techniques to new actors; a program for training theater artisans; the Studio Theater, Stratford's new "experimental" stage; new play development; Stratford's educational efforts, including a Shakespeare "camp" and a program for high-school teachers; and various capital-improvements to the facilities. Our family's annual trip to Stratford is something we look forward to all year, and it gives you a wonderful feeling to feel that you're helping keep an institution you value so much alive.
I'm not sure it belongs in this spot, but I also give to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who are doing what they can to uphold real academic excellence and accountability to donors, and to fight the forces of mediocrity, self-dealing and political correctness.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is one of the most effective Jewish outreach organizations out there. I support both the national organization and the Hillel at my alma mater. Hillel is reaching American Jews at a crucial point in their lives. College is the time when people self-consciously forge an identity. While people can change greatly after college (I did), for many people this is when they settle into patterns that impact the rest of their lives. It's also, not incidentally, when many people find their spouses.
And Hillel is a particularly important organization to support now, I think, because of the increased prominence of anti-Israel activism on campus. Jewish students who are already supportive of Israel need a place where they can coalesce, and students who don't know anything about the conflict need to hear from an organization that will present a viewpoint more sympathetic to Israel. Hillel embraces under its umbrella groups that take a more right-wing and a more left-wing approach to the situation in Israel, everything from Likud-oriented groups to Peace Now; if I had to guess, the balance is tilted leftward rather than rightward. But all of these groups will comprehend the situation as it impacts Israelis and Jews, which many of the anti-Israel groups now active on campus do not.
The UJA is, of course, the granddaddy of Jewish communal organizations, and of course I support it. In a more modest way, I've supported communal organizations like the Global Jewish Relief Network and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and cultural organizations like the Center for Jewish History. I've also been supportive of Jewish outreach organizations not specifically focused on college students, such as the National Jewish Outreach Program. And of course I'm very supportive of my own synagogue. I also give to MEMRI, which provides the invaluable service of translating material from the Arabic language press into English, and disseminating it. MEMRI has been accused of selectivity in its choice of material. Fine: if MEMRI encourages others to search the Arabic press for material they are missing and disseminate that, that's all to the good. I'm not supporting MEMRI primarily because they have a political agenda (and they do) but because they are doing a huge amount of good simply by shining a light in an area of paramount interest to America as well as to Israel and to Jews worldwide.
Finally, within Israel probably the largest share of my support goes to the Masorti movement, the counterpart to the Conservative movement in America and (to a much lesser extent) elsewhere internationally. Masorti congregations and educational institutions in Israel, unlike Orthodox ones, are not provided with government funding, and precisely because the government funds synagogues and schools in Israel, Israelis do not see it as part of their job to do so privately. I think this is a pretty lousy model for how a religious establishment can work (and I do think a religious establishment can work, and is necessary for Israel). I do not agree with everything about Masorti - I don't think the changes they want to make in the religious establishment are entirely correct; I don't think they should always and reflexively ally themselves with Reform; and I think their leadership is far too left-wing on political, economic and security matters for my taste, and considers that stance too important to their mission in Israel, whereas in fact it should be relatively peripheral. But I agree with much of their religious stance (that's why I'm a Conservative Jew myself), and I strongly believe that they have something to offer the many Israelis who are in need of a spiritual home but who are alienated from Orthodoxy.
On the other hand, I've also supported Orthodox institutions that I think are doing important work. Two that stand out are the Ohr Torah family of educational institutions, located in Efrat, which is on the other side of the Green Line but within the "consensus" areas that everyone expects to be integrated into Israel after a separation from the Palestinians, and Nishmat, based in Jerusalem. Ohr Torah was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and is one of the premier centers of rabbinical training for Modern Orthodox rabbis. Riskin is a very imporant modern leader among the Orthodox, a true heir to the vision of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (though he himself would never claim to be anything close to either as a scholar). I think he's trended too far in the direction of Kookite religious Zionism for my taste, but post-separation one of the tasks of the religious Zionist camp will be to reconstruct their understanding of the religious significance of the state in light of the fact that settlement of the whole Land is not a realistic option today. And I think Riskin is one of very few leaders in that camp capable of leading that effort.
Nishmat, meanwhile, is doing absolutely crucial work providing to Orthodox women the equivalent of the kind of education that a modern yeshivah provides to candidates for the rabbinate. Nishmat is also active in pushing - within a strictly observant context - to address women's concerns and make more room for women to play a role in the halachic process. This is very important work for the Orthodox community, but also for the Jewish world as a whole.
I support Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which is trying to help develop this relatively depressed part of the country. Ben-Gurion is associated with the left wing of the Israeli political spectrum, but I'm not sure I understand why development of the south of the country should be considered a left-wing project, other than that Ben-Gurion himself opposed the settlement plans for the territories acquired in 1967, and favored instead a focus on developing areas within the Green Line. In any event, I think their efforts are important.
I've also been supportive of organizations like Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross; Selah: The Israel Crisis Management Center, which aids immigrant victims of terror and other trauma; Sha'are Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem; Ezer Mizion, an Israeli social-welfare organzation; and other Israeli charities.