In a forthcoming book, Helping Others to Help Themselves: The Jewish Philanthropic Tradition from Biblical Israel to Modern America, Rabbi David G. Dalin, visiting associate professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, argues that it is a mistake to equate Jewish charitable principles with the policies of the welfare state. Dalin, a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, spoke to Philanthropy in Washington.
PHILANTHROPY: Some people today talk about the need for a return to stigma in social welfare and a greater sanction of antisocial behavior. Is there a similar concern for the dignity of the needy person in the Jewish charitable tradition?
MR. DALIN: Central to the classic Jewish view of charity over the centuries was the principle of self-help. The rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent Jewish scholars believed in the need to help others help themselves. Living continuously on welfare-either from Jewish communal charity or payments from the government-without working in return was never respectable or acceptable within traditional Jewish society. Dependency on public welfare came to be looked upon as shameful. Talmudic laws were concerned with protecting the poor from the feeling of shame and degradation associated with being dependent upon public charity. Thus, throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, Jewish leaders steadfastly opposed any and all governmental assistance and intervention in Jewish charity work.
PHILANTHROPY: How did the Jewish charitable tradition evolve in America?
MR. DALIN: The belief in charitable self-sufficiency was reinforced by the original terms of Jewish settlement in North America, which required Jews to take care of their own. Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam [where Jews first settled, now New York] adamantly opposed a permanent Jewish presence in his colony. But the Dutch West India Company ordered Stuyvesant to let the Jews remain on the condition that the poor among them not become public charges but ‘be supported by their own Jewish nation.’ Thus, the first Jews to arrive in America adhered to this stipulation, pledging not to allow their poor to become public charges and promising to always ‘take care of their own.’ For 300 years, until the 1930s, successive generations of American Jews would fulfill this pledge to Peter Stuyvesant by building Jewish philanthropic and self-help organizations and by consistently opposing public welfare and government intervention in their private charity work.
PHILANTHROPY: How did this tradition of government noninterference change?
MR. DALIN: The Great Depression presented the first serious challenge to the Jewish communal principle of charitable self-sufficiency. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders early on debated the merits of Jewish participation on New Deal programs, forcing an historic and emotional reassessment of the Jewish community’s traditional obligation to care for its own members and its opposition to government intervention in its private charity work. One prominent Jewish social work executive characterized 1933 as the first year the Jewish community in the United States ‘has been forced to transfer to the state primary responsibility for relief to its dependents.’ But most Jewish communal leaders supported this shift, arguing for the necessity of Jewish acceptance of public relief, and pointing with pride to the national role that Jews were playing as architects of the welfare state, shaping and promoting a variety of new federal government welfare policies and programs.
PHILANTHROPY: Was this seen as merely a temporary solution or a precedent for a new relationship with government?
MR. DALIN: For some it was seen as a necessity in response to a crisis, but for others this became the beginning of a new ‘tradition’ that argued that American Jews had an obligation to take part in and actively support the New Deal programs. My guess is that a lot of the people who argued on the basis of necessity did not imagine or envision this becoming a precedent for ever increasing Jewish charitable dependence on public funding. But by the mid-1970s, Jewish charities had become increasingly dependent on government funds, with government funding accounting for as much as 66 percent of the budgets of several Jewish charitable organizations.