On November 9, 2016 in Jerusalem, I crawled into bed at 6am, after wandering home from an election results viewing party crammed with liberal American expats and a handful of Israeli allies. Over the course of the evening, the tone of our gathering had shifted from celebratory and smug, to tense and confused, to mournfully quiet. As the sun rose over Jerusalem and the results began to sink in, I grasped for a comforting thought. Ok, I told myself, we have work to do.
My desire to engage civically as an American has taken on greater urgency in recent years. I moved to Israel immediately upon graduating college; that year, I watched the trial of Trayvon Martin's murderer, and the rage and anguish that came in its wake, unfold on my Facebook feed. As the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, I felt acutely that something was happening in America—something painful, powerful, and important—and that I was watching it, motionless, from afar.
I had been drawn to Israel because there were battles being fought here that I felt responsible as a Jew to join. Yet as I became more awake to wars being waged in the United States, I'd begun to wonder: how should I be exercising my American civic responsibility—from thousands of miles away?
The 2016 elections brought this question to the fore. I wanted to take action, but getting on a plane to march on Washington wasn't a realistic option. Around this time, I'd become familiar with Amplifier, and with the brilliant concept of a giving circle. The idea was to gather with peers to discuss values around giving, and then to choose, together, where to devote a pool of funds. It was a way of giving intentionally, but more than that, an opportunity to gather a community around shared concerns, and—rather than simply complaining together—devote our worried energy toward something good.
I called a friend, and together we developed a plan. We invited four others to join: all originally American, of different faith backgrounds, who shared core values relevant to current social concerns but would bring diverse perspectives to questions about how we might prioritize giving. To lower the barrier for entry, we wouldn't ask for a minimum donation, and nobody would know how much anyone else was contributing. I started a What's App group, explained the concept, and set a date.
What followed was a powerful and empowering experience. The group met twice. The first evening, we made a long list of issue-areas about which we were particularly concerned in light of the recent elections (things like "environment," "empowerment of women and girls," "race," "LGBTQ," and "education"). Each of us chose a category, and we committed to researching that category and returning to the group with two organizations: one that addressed the issue on a grassroots or local level, and the other that had a larger-scale or national scope.
We gathered again in my living room two weeks later. Over popcorn and beer, we went around and each "pitched" the organizations we had discovered. We held a round of voting to narrow down the set of organizations from twelve to six; and then each of us settled on 1-3 organizations that would receive our personal donations. Over the course of the next week, every time a group member made their donations, they alerted the rest of us via the What's App group. The friendly peer-pressure ensured that all six of us followed through.
That giving circle only met once, and it's unlikely we'll meet again. But the gathering served as a point of light at a moment of uncertainty and frustration, exposed us to the ongoing work of some extraordinary organizations, and facilitated our contributing to their good work, even from afar.
As an expat, philanthropy is often the form of American civic engagement most accessible to me. But that's not just true of expats: no matter where we live, sometimes the most significant support we can offer to those fighting on the front lines of a social challenge is financial support. My giving circle experience both amplified my own modest contributions, and fostered a mini-community that offered me a much-needed dose of inspiration and hope.
Here's a list of organizations that came up in the process:
Refugees and Immigration
About the author: Shani is the Program Manager at OLAM, a Jerusalem-based NGO
which seeks to engage the Jewish community in addressing the needs of vulnerable
communities globally. After five years serving Jewish and Israeli social change
organizations, she will be entering her first year as a rabbinical student at
Hebrew College this fall.