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Exploring the “Jewish” in Jewish Giving Circles

April 12, 2016

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“Some of you have been sitting on the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York grants committees for years, and some of you are new participants.  What Jewish values brought your fellow giving circle members to the table?"

This question provoked the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) to explore how they might discover the Jewish roots of their work together. Inspired by the HEKDESH Tzedakah Learning Series, the Dorot Fellowship in Israel’s Alumni giving circle, JWFNY’s Stephanie Blumenkranz and Rachel Siegel brought in Julie Sissman to facilitate a workshop that would get foundation members talking deeply and seriously about how they connect Jewishly to their giving. 

Amplifier: How did the idea of a deep dive into Jewish values come to fruition?

Rachel Siegel:  We’ve been inspired by Amplifier’s focus on Jewish values, wisdom, and tradition and we wanted to bring that to JWFNY. This kick-off meeting for our grant committees had two objectives: to build community and to focus on the Jewish motivation for giving.  

Stephanie Blumenkranz:  We also read through the HEKDESH Tzedakah Learning Series, which juxtaposes Jewish tradition with newspaper articles, videos, etc. to help people examine their choices relating to tzedakah and money.  We knew that Julie helped create the HEKDESH Series, so we invited her to co-design and facilitate the workshop.

Amplifier: From your perspective, what is giving with a Jewish lens?

Julie Sissman: I’ve often reflected – what’s “Jewish” about a “Jewish giving circle”?  Is it a group of Jews coming together to give collectively?  Is it a group of people giving to Jewish organizations?  I want my giving to be grounded in an understanding of what Jewish tradition says about tzedakah, justice, remembering being a stranger in Egypt, responsibility for “the other,” and other Jewish big ideas.  This could mean that giving through a Jewish lens has both Jewish and non-Jewish recipients.  As an active Jew, supporting organizations focused on the Jewish community is very important to me. 

Amplifier: Was any consideration given to the fact that people may feel uncomfortable discussing their Jewish values?

RS:  During the planning, we considered our members’ wide range of Jewish backgrounds and discussed how this could be a potential barrier. Part of the reason we decided to utilize the HEKDESH Tzedakah Learning Series is because it already took these factors into consideration. Its use of Jewish texts and opening activities creates a level playing field for all participants.

SB: We noticed that people were much more open to discussing their personal values in small groups. When we asked for people to share their conversation with the larger group, there was much more apprehension. Allowing people to have conversations in intimate groups created a safe space where they could analyze their views.

JS: As a result of our thoughtful planning, it was evident that my peers appreciated the opportunity to get to know people on a more personal level. Despite the multitude of Jewish experiences in the room, we were glad to see everyone so open to participating and learning from one another. From the feedback that we received, we could tell that the conversation helped them meaningfully consider the Jewish values they brought to their giving and decision making. 

Amplifier: What took place during the session? 

SB:  We started with some “getting to know you better” questions such as “If there is a tzedakah-related question that you’re struggling with, please share it.”  We read a piece from a contemporary Jewish philanthropist about being a changemaker, and asked participants to reflect on their role/identities as changemakers.

JS:  Then we brought in some older Jewish wisdom – the Talmud.  We looked at two short sections that discuss the differences in roles between those who collect tzedakah and those who distribute tzedakah.  We had a discussion about how this relates to our responsibility as members of a giving collective.  After “dialoguing” with Jewish thinkers from hundreds of years ago, we had an open discussion about what it means to each of us to use a Jewish lens in JWFNY’s grantmaking work.

Amplifier: What impact do you think this conversation will have on this year’s grantmaking? 

SB: I think members will be more reflective about what we aim to accomplish as Jewish women.

RS: We read in the Talmud that it should take more people to allocate charity than to collect it. We hope that members take this message to heart, and see the value of our collective process. As one member reflected, we need the opinions of as many members as possible to make decisions in the best interest of the Foundation.


JS, SB, RS: We’ve now learned that having a conversation about Jewish values in philanthropy can be valuable to giving circles, no matter how long they’ve been around! We are happy to share the materials we used and other materials from the HEKDESH Tzedakah Learning Series with any other Jewish giving circles interested in further exploring Jewish values.  

We’ll leave you with the blessing we used to close our discussion:

As we embark on a new grant year, may our experience with this Jewish giving circle – and our own personal tzedakah – bring us deeper meaning, a way to make a positive impact on the world, new connections with each other, and new spiritual possibilities.

HEKDESH is a philanthropy collective that inspires members to be increasingly intentional and generous with their charitable donations by exploring the traditions and practice of tzedakah. HEKDESH is made up of over 80 alumni and current fellows of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel and their spouses/partners, and was selected twice for the Slingshot Guide, recognized for its innovative approach to alumni engagement. For more information, please go to .

JWFNY works to advance the status and well-being of women and girls in the Jewish community in New York, Israel and beyond. Since its founding, JWFNY has awarded $4.5 million to 185 projects through our innovative social-change grant making, advocacy and education programs. For more information, please go to