Blog post

How Religion Motivates My Giving

3 min read
30 Apr 2015

The other patrons at the Chinese restaurant were beginning to stare. Charlotte and I couldn’t help raising our voices as the debate intensified.

“Isn’t the point to pick the charity that does the most good for the least amount of money? Each dollar that doesn’t go there is a dollar that could have done more good,” she asserted.

“Yes, but I guess there are two different values. Doing as much good as possible, and contributing to the survival of the Jewish people.”

We were at an impasse. We had agreed that, rather than using a gift registry for our wedding, we would create a charity registry. “We’ve been blessed by our families with more than enough furniture, clothing, and kitchen supplies to make a home,” we wrote in the invitation. But which charities would make the list?

Both Charlotte and I have become more passionate about advocating charities that are evidence-backed, and whose impacts are proven. To that end, we had identified GiveDirectly and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, both recommended by the rigorous charity evaluator GiveWell. It felt strange, though, to exclude Jewish charities—given that we were having an orthodox Jewish wedding.

Being Jewish is what shaped my views on charity in the first place. Growing up in day schools, my classmates and I were instilled with our people’s commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world). We were encouraged to decorate our own tzedaka (charity) boxes, to take them home and donate a portion of our allowance each week. In Bible class, we learned about the tradition of the tithe, about how one tenth of our income belonged not to us, but to those who needed it most. And in Talmud class, we learned the importance of challenging the majority opinion, of demanding error-proof logical argument.

When I first heard about Giving What We Can—donating 10% of one’s income? using metrics to select the most effective causes?—it sounded like a Jewish organization!

On the other hand, there are ways in which my commitment to Judaism conflicts with my commitment to effective altruism. Most prominently, the fact that I choose to donate a portion of my 10% to Jewish charities that are not as proven as other secular charities.

Plenty of Jews give to non-Jewish charities, but Jews are much more likely to give to specifically Jewish charities. If Jews don’t support their own people, few other people will necessarily prioritize helping Jews over others. True, as Charlotte astutely pointed out, each $1 I give to a Jewish person in need could have helped a non-Jewish person who was more in-need, whose life could have been more improved by that help.

But I see a difference—it’s not just about the individuals. Unfortunately, as has often been the case in history, the existence of the Jewish people is continuously threatened. As a Jew, I feel a strong obligation to contribute however I can to our survival.

I’m able to apply the same standards I’ve learned from the Giving What We Can community to find the more effective Jewish charities. Unfortunately, I’m not yet aware of any large ones that track data through studies and emphasize transparency to the same extent as GiveWell’s top-rated charities, but I still seek those that save the most lives (or have the most positive impact on lives) for the lowest cost.

True, my allocation may feel contradictory, and it is a question I am still working on—by reading, by thinking, by debating with Charlotte and with others. What I’ve concluded is that it’s okay for now. To paraphrase the philosopher Rabbi Harold Kushner: if it were an obvious choice, if all our decisions of right-and-wrong were pre-programmed into us, life would have no meaning. Struggling with questions of morality is what gives us purpose.