I’m a senior and believe strongly in putting my money where my mouth is, so I avoid shopping in certain stores, try to take public transportation and generally live frugally by utilizing thrift stores and farmer’s markets. But I have family money that came to me through relatives who survived the Shoah. I try not to think of it as “mine” for daily living, which I feel a responsibility to pay for myself with my earnings and savings. I have no heirs who will really need the money, so I decided to donate a healthy percentage of the assets that will survive me to my synagogue in my will. I filled out a legacy donor form a year or so ago specifying that the money was to be used for Holocaust education. Last week I got a call saying (much, much more politely and very sincerely): “Thanks for the donation in your will. Is there a chance you could give us money now? Also, we aren’t sure we can honor the specificity of your donation, so would you mind donating your bequest to the general endowment?” I said I could not contribute anything now, and that I wanted to sleep on the endowment issue. Two weeks later I still feel unsatisfied by the request. A general endowment can pay for everything from the janitor to the utility bill. I want something very different and specific. Perhaps I should set up the program while I am alive to see it manifest. Ideas?
Giving a large tzedakah donation, which is how I interpret your question, is a luxury for many people. When it comes as a lump bequest, measured in thousands or many thousands of dollars, the recipient should not only say a sincere thank you but also attempt to honor the donor’s request. It’s totally legit for your synagogue to ask if you could give some of the money now –and totally legit for you to say no if it doesn’t meet your current lifestyle or budget priorities. What sounds most important to you, the Shoah education component, is what you should focus on.
Beyond your shul are many organizations devoted to Jewish life and history, from the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education to the University of Oregon Holocaust Studies Program. Contact each of them to know what your choices are before you commit too much too soon. Then, determine what your reasonable expectation of a donation would be. A long illness can wipe out even healthy bank accounts. When you feel certain what you can honestly deliver, go back to each possible recipient. Lay out a plan that would work within each context. In your synagogue, for example, there may be an alternate endowment fund, most likely for Talmud Torah. Ask if the intent of your donation could be met within that context. Then work with the synagogue library/Talmud Torah folks to round out their Shoah collection of materials, and have a section of the library named for your deceased ancestors. Set up an annual reading program for TT students and fund that now, with the remainder of the legacy to support the program into the future.
I live on a fixed income. Each year there is a fundraising auction I attend to support ongoing temple operations. The ticket price is high (for me), plus I contribute through bidding and donations. After the meal there are rounds of additional donations implicitly required that set tables competing for the most desirable dessert, or pledging additional money for the school and preschool programs. It’s simply out of my league to give more. How can I explain that without shaming myself as poor?
If you sit with people you know, who organize a table together, tell them upfront and remind them quietly when you start the meal that you can donate $x toward dessert and $y for school donations, but that’s your limit. Kind people won’t shame you.
A Nosh of Jewish Wisdom: Don’t shame the old; you’ll be among them if you’re lucky.
Helen is a member of Temple Beth Israel, where she studies and speaks on Torah. She claims to have black belts in schmoozing, problem solving and chutzpah. She’s a writer and an artist (kabbalahglass.com). Please email your questions to