The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is urging community members to refocus their charitable giving on local causes.
The RCBC sent a letter to local Orthodox rabbis last month citing passages in the Shulchan Aruch that charity begins at home and that “the primary responsibility of tzedakah is to support the needs of our closest neighbors first.” The directive, said Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, RCBC president and religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck, is in response to the growing needs within the community.
“We want to make sure that we are prioritizing properly in terms of communal allocation of charity funds,” he said. “People need to be reminded that charity begins at home. That is a halachic idea and a secular concept.”
A year ago, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York, addressed the community about the importance of local giving and suggested that about 75 percent of contributions go to area charities and institutions. The RCBC letter emphasized that figure as a guideline for communal giving.
“We need to guarantee the future of our own community and the future of our schools,” Rothwachs said. “We’re not looking to shortchange anyone; we’re just trying to be responsive to the reality we’re facing.”
The letter, which RCBC rabbis have been sharing with their congregations, is meant to reinforce that concept, Rothwachs said. It is not, he emphasized, a declaration in support of any specific charities over others.
“People know what the local needs are,” he said. “If they have any questions about which local needs take priority, they should consult with their local rabbi for guidance.”
With a Jewish population of more than 100,000 and more than 180 Jewish organizations, according to Jewishvirtuallibrary.org, Bergen County residents have been known for their Israel activism and giving to the Jewish state. Rothwachs said the RCBC would like to see that continue, but “there are times in life when people have to make choices and when there is a limited amount of resources to go around, people deserve the guidance on how to prioritize.”
“We hope that Israel will not lose,” he continued. “Our community’s been generous to [the state] in the past and we hope that generosity will continue. But we can’t ignore the realities we’re facing here.”
UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, the gateway to many area charities such as Jewish Family Service and Bonim Builders, recognized two years ago that the economic crisis had hit locally, and charitable priorities had to be readjusted, said executive vice president Howard Charish. The organization shifted its allocations last year to 63 percent local distribution and 37 percent overseas. In its fiscal year 2011 budget, which was just finalized, the federation lowered the local allocations to 62 percent.
“Unquestionably there is a need at this time for more resources locally,” he said. “The UJA feels its mandate is to help Jews everywhere.”
Charish said UJA-NNJ is a partner with RCBC in the spirit of the letter of reaching out to vulnerable local Jews.
“We have not turned a corner by any means here in the community,” he said.
He pointed, however, to increased requests for aid from agencies helping Jews in the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Israel.
“There is a tremendous need overseas,” he said. “It hasn’t relented. It’s almost a perfect storm with the crisis here at home as well as significant needs in Israel and around the world.”
Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz, religious leader of Cong. Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck and treasurer of the RCBC, has forwarded the letter to members of his congregation and has often spoken on the subject.
“Since the needs of the community are pressing,” he said, “it’s important to reinforce our values that the community comes first.”
The communal directive has no definitive end date and depends on local economics, according to Schiowitz.
“If things are fine, then we can focus charity elsewhere,” he said.