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A Group Discussion About Money

This piece was originally published in Reconstructionism Today in its Winter 1999/2000 issue. It is included here for its historical interest and variety of perspectives. 

In 1999, JRF’s department of Outreach and Community Development developed a workshop entitled, “A Torah of Money: Values, Money and Your Community”. Here is an edited transcript of a conference call (May 24, 1999) involving the workshop facilitator, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, JRF Board members, and representatives from the following West Coast congregations: Dor Hadash (San Diego, CA), Havurah Shalom (Portland, OR), Keddem Congregation (Palo Alto, CA), Kehillat Israel (Pacific Palisades, CA), Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (Malibu, CA), Ner Shalom (Cotati, CA), Temple Beth Sholom (Salem, OR), University Synagogue (Irvine, CA). The conversation was moderated by Bruce Canter, West Coast Regional President, and Sandy Rubenstein, JRF’s West Coast Regional Director.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit: As a way of introduction, I want to say that the “Torah of Money” is a Jewish values-based approach to human and financial resources in our communities. The phrase was coined by Jeffrey Dekro, a Reconstructionist who heads The Shefa Fund in Philadelphia. It means approaching our material resources with an expectation of finding godliness or holiness there. The process involves looking at our class backgrounds, our attitudes towards money, what our Jewish tradition offers by way of economic philosophy, and our contemporary needs and values.

Susan Levine (Dor Hadash): Talking about money, even to myself, is somewhat uncomfortable.

Florence Dann (JRF Board): In my parental home, money was never discussed. Things were kept from us, and we never got to deal with the realities of money.

Judith Sommerstein (Malibu): When I started my practice, it was difficult to deal with having to think of myself as a business. I wasn’t a business, I was a professional in a helping profession. There was a lot of confusion about this.

Zevit: These feelings that we bring to the table – more often than not unarticulated – find their ways into the building fund, the dues issue, the rabbi’s contract, fundraising, and more. Two texts that I sent you from Leviticus and Deuteronomy bring a different attitude to the table. Both begin with an attitude of abundance – “when you reap the harvest in your field.” If you’re operating with a scarcity mentality, a concern about not having enough, your tzedakah work is going to be much more difficult. So you might want to ask yourselves, “Am I bringing a scarcity mentality to the discussion or one of abundance? Am I able to assess and appreciate what I have, then move forward?”

The Torah also describes the building of the Mishkan in the desert – how people brought so much that the artisans pleaded with Moshe to stop them. Imagine yourself on your congregational board saying, “I’m sorry, folks, we really have to cut down the fundraising -we’ve made more than 25% of our budget and don’t need any more! Give it to another cause.”

Many of us have become comfortable talking in community about issues of sexuality and inclusivity and bodily disabilities. Our need now is to become as comfortable talking about money. That’s the Talmud’s approach, to treat money and resources as openly as it does bodily functions and relationships. But it’s not so easy in our communities, where there are sometimes strong anti-institutional feelings associated with the money culture of organized Jewish life.

Providing a Jewish context for the discussion helps. I particularly like, for example, Rabbi Meir’s saying that one should teach a child a clean and easy craft, and to “earnestly pray to God to whom all wealth and property belong, for neither poverty nor wealth comes from one’s calling but from God.” The Torah of Money makes a real point that we are stewards as much as owners of our wealth.

An historical context can shed some light for us, too. If I can read you a couple lines from Lawrence Bush and Jeffrey Dekro’s book, Jews, Money and Social Responsibility: “For Jews, anxieties about money are vastly heightened by our historic experience of persecution and displacement… Jews cannot afford to be glib about money issues. Money has been for us a tool, not merely of status and power, but of survival. Jews are also constantly contending with classic enduring stereotypes linking us to affluence and greed.”

Much of this has been internalized in our communities. We are challenged not to feel guilt or shame when we’re making pitches, calling up for requests, dealing with issues around money or allocation of resources. But by having a conversation about these difficulties, we begin to build trust, to build relationships and build community, which is what good fundraising is all about. 

Sandy Rubenstein: You’re suggesting a separate conversation on the personal issues.

Zevit: Yes. The study and the conversation are part of building a community that will be capable of effective fundraising.

Berina Pennington (Dor Hadash): I’m curious to know if some congregations have moved a percentage-based “tithing” instead of a flat rate dues.

Jeff Dielle (Ner Shalom): We are proposing and are going to have a congregational meeting to get feedback and hopefully implement it. One of our big concerns is that we need an active membership committee to drive the process.

Rubenstein: One possibility is to create a separate dues committee, involved in confidential money issues. Membership issues are then dealt with by a different committee.

Dielle: We had a graduated dues scale, separate tiers for single people and families. There was a feeling that what you contributed should be somehow based on the level of service you received from the synagogue. I think we now want to move away from what was described as a “pay-as-you-go” synagogue.

Zevit: We counsel communities to think of dues as part of their citizenship in the Jewish community, not the cost of buying services. Until modern times, we had that sense of responsibility integrated into Jewish communal life. 

Dielle: In the past, our board kept a lot of information to itself. In generating a community based decision-making process we’re going to have to take the risk of opening up some issues.

Rubenstein: Creating that kind of dialogue is an important step, but it can be pretty scary.

Linda Schibel (JRF Board): Given the premise that we operate on a more or less democratic point of view, I think the risks are relatively small, because all decisions will be values-based in the community.

Andy Gordon (Havurah Shalom): One problem with community-based and values-based decision-making is that it actually takes longer than having the executive committee decide what they want to do and present it to the congregation for confirmation. A lot of the leadership I’ve seen in my lifetime isn’t willing to spend that amount of time. At Havurah Shalom, one of our successes, I think, is that we don’t rush into things, our leadership has always been willing to talk about something two or three or four or ten times in order to come to a consensus.

Our by-laws require that we fund our operating budget completely from dues, which are based on a percentage of annual income, with special arrangement made for those unable to pay at that level. We also ask everyone to contribute 10 hours of volunteer time per year. We have done three fundraisers in our entire 20-year history. One was a bake sale that raised somewhere around $100, and we’ve had two silent auctions-and-cabaret nights that raised a total of about $40,000. Yet we’ve just funded about $1.2 million for our building, largely from contributions from the congregation. How? Our financial decisions are completely open. There’s a tremendous amount of trust. Nobody is ever scratching their head wondering what’s going on. Those unable to meet their financial obligation have an out: We have always had an individual in our congregation who is the only person who knows what anybody pays in dues. He negotiates with the family. It is completely confidential. 

Mike Morris (Havurah Shalom): Since we began a building campaign, we started to talk about money and we’ve actually been able to do successful, values-based fundraising.

Rubenstein: Everybody’s talking about openness and values-based decision-making and participation, which is terrific – these are core Reconstructionist values. But what about when things get difficult? Your fixed costs are growing, your board can’t say no to wonderful ideas that deserve funding, you want to increase your staffing, your expenses are increasing…

Zevit: I’m curious as to how congregations are handling this juxtaposition of values-based decision-making and growing expenditures, especially when there’s a shortfall.

Sandy Rogosin (Temple Beth Sholom): Our board is trying to address it directly. Most recently, we’ve had two meetings, to collect data from people and to discuss the future of Temple Beth Sholom. We’ve talked very deeply about what we value most in synagogue life, where we placed the greatest value, be it the Sunday school program, the presence of the rabbi, adult education, Israel – all those issues.

The community seems against tithing or any kind of graduated dues. It seems that we favor much more the flat-rate approach to dues. But we do have a pledging system. A few years ago when we were in most desperate straits, there was one individual who was very good at making phone calls and putting gentle pressure on people to come up with pledges. That has become a large part of our funding. It’s not quite fundraising, it’s not quite dues. It’s the contribution of people who can make a financial commitment above and beyond the dues. Sometimes those people feel a little exhausted because the pledge program was originally only supposed to go about three or four years to get us out of debt. Now that we have a very fine rabbi, we’re concerned about keeping that inflow of money.

Zevit: Again, it gets tricky to deal with money when there’s a feeling of crisis or scarcity. I think we need to build these discussions about money, resources, building funds, and so on upon the question, “What do we really want for our community?” Resources can get then be pooled and allocated in response to those needs. Otherwise you’re playing catch-up and it will only be a dollars-and-cents discussion.

Having a clear communal vision, and exploring what our tradition and contemporary approaches have to say to us, are central to developing a values-based approach to financial resources.

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