5 ways to approach Jewish philanthropy after terror

As I watched the news of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I wondered again what I’ve wondered before: Why can’t we spread the pain and sadness thin by sharing them? I wished that I could take upon myself some of the pain that the congregation, and the broader community of Squirrel Hill, is facing. But their pain doesn’t diminish, and mine grows.

Philanthropy comes from two Greek words, philos and anthropos: love and humanity. Being a Jewish philanthropist means having a love for humanity that forms concentric circles, expanding outward to reach the world. Philanthropy starts with the emotion of love. So it’s necessary that we react to Pittsburgh with emotions: anger, grief, disbelief and outrage.

But funders are also communal leaders. Whether they ask for it or not, they are in the driver’s seats of many communal programs and policies. In this time of anguish and fear, people will look to us for support, resources and guidance. They will seek our empathy but also our calming leadership. So we need to give time and space to our emotions, but simultaneously seek a thoughtful and strategic response to this tragedy.

Jewish Funders Network is a global organization. The type of tragedy that hit Pittsburgh is not, unfortunately, new to our members in Europe, Israel and South America. As Jews, we draw from lessons learned around the world. We can also draw from the experience of secular American philanthropy in the wake of the many tragedies — natural and man-made — that have hit North America.

Here are some elements of what a thoughtful philanthropic response might look like.


1. Balancing an immediate response with long-term planning

After tragedy, the immediate response is overwhelming. But different challenges emerge in the long term, once the catastrophe is out of the headlines — from the fallout of trauma to security needs to community resilience. Funders need to assist in the immediate aftermath, but being strategically invested in the long term is a critical role.


2. Hardening targets while remaining welcoming

Jewish communities in Europe and South America have learned to become “hard targets,” meaning they have systems and mechanisms that can make it harder for terrorists to attack. After the 1994 Amia Jewish center bombing in Argentina, Jewish organizations built concrete barriers against car bombs; after attacks in France, the army was deployed in synagogues and schools. While some U.S. Jewish institutions ramped up security after the 2006 attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, most American Jews are not used to thinking in those terms. Yet in a context of rampant hatred and the easy availability of deadly weapons, we may need to help more of our organizations become hard targets. The problem is that hardening organizations tends to make them less welcoming. So the challenge will be to find a model that can articulate security and openness, protection and homeliness.


3. Analysis and research

The Pittsburgh attack comes within a context of racial hatred and intolerance. It’s no coincidence that in a single week America saw a series of mail bombs, an attempted shooting at a black church brought to a murderous conclusion in a grocery store and the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh. In each case, the alleged assailant was inspired by a far right ideology that creates an intersectionality of hate, putting Jews, African Americans, Muslims and immigrants in the same category of despised peoples. Being rightfully concerned about Islamic extremism, we may have become complacent about this more traditional form of white supremacist hatred. As funders, we may need to invest more in researching, understanding and fighting this brand of hatred that has proved extremely deadly for Jews and non-Jews.


4. Advocacy and political action

Meaningful change necessitates public policies, government funding and political backing. Hiding behind a pretense of being “nonpolitical,” we can try to ignore the gun issue, but the truth is that guns are common in mass killings in America. And the solution to the gun issue is ultimately political. Political action is also needed to address other aspects of this issue, from accessing public funds for security to the debasement of political discourse in America. Foundations need to be careful regarding what activities can be considered charitable when embarking upon political action and advocacy, but we can’t avoid them if we are to produce real change.


5. Communication, partnership and cooperation

Whenever disaster strikes, we see a lot of duplication and “stepping on toes.” Funders and organizations rush to help, and the lack of coordination and communication makes the response less than optimal. Some areas or needs are overfunded, while others don’t receive the necessary attention. We’ve learned from global experience that a coordinating mechanism for immediate and long-term help is very important in streamlining aid and making sure that no significant gaps remain in the response. Other parts of the Jewish world offer some insights in that regard. In Israel, the creation of Rahel (the National Emergency Authority) after the Second Lebanon War made the philanthropic response to the subsequent Gaza wars more effective and efficient. The creation of the CST (Community Security Trust) in the U.K. helped provide a comprehensive view of the security needs of the entire community. Funders themselves need to create permanent consultative mechanisms around issues of security and resilience.

In the days and weeks to come, JFN will be working with our local, national and international partners to identify ways in which funders can help with both immediate and long-term needs. Wanting to “do something” is not only morally correct but also therapeutic for ourselves and others. Much of the anguish and anxiety that these tragedies generate stems from the perception that the world is out of our control, and nothing is more distressing than helplessness. By doing what we can, we alter that reality and reclaim agency for ourselves and our communities.

Now, in the face of despicable hatred, we need to raise our love of humanity as a banner. Because if pain is not zero-sum, neither is love.

After a historic tragedy, the Torah uses two ways to urge us never to forget: zachor and al tishkach — literally, “remember” and “don’t forget.” Rabbis interpret one to be passive: a process simply to keep the memory alive. The other is active: transforming memories into meaningful action. This is our challenge now.

Reprinted from the Jewish Funders Network. This article has been edited for length.

Andrés Spokoiny

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.