As the Jewish community celebrates the High Holidays, Philanthropy Roundtable recently interviewed Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, founder of the Shul and the Aleph Institute, to discuss how his faith informs his charitable work. Rabbi Lipskar will also participate in a panel discussion “Philanthropy & Faith: How Faith Propels and Strengthens the Generous American Spirit” at this year’s Philanthropy Roundtable Annual Meeting.
Q: This is a special time of year for the Jewish community with the High Holidays. What key values are you reminding your community of as it pertains to generosity?
First of all, we recognize this time of year as the beginning of the year for the whole world because God created the world at this time. We celebrate New Year on the anniversary date of God creating man which was on the sixth day of creation. This is called Rosh Hashanah.
Why did he create the world? And why did he create humans? According to the deepest sources of what we call Torah Kabbalistic insight, God created the world because God is the ultimate essence of kindness. He wanted to have kindness and in order to have kindness, you need a recipient. You can’t just be kind to yourself. You have to be kind to a recipient. And, so, he created us so that he could have kindness.
God created man singularly to teach us that we each have the capacity to make a difference. And charitableness has many manifestations. It’s taking five dollars out and giving a poor man enough money to buy himself a sandwich and a drink. It’s giving a kind word to someone who’s depressed and down and has nobody to talk to. It’s helping an elderly person cross the street and taking a little extra time with them, without making them feel needy or uncomfortable. Kindness has multiple manifestations, and each one of us is required to express that manifestation.
Q: The Jewish Community Center you founded, the Shul, has become a vital hub of activities and services for the Jewish population in south Florida. How do you engage your community to engage in Tzedakah (doing what is right) and Tikun Olam (correcting the world)?
Each morning before we start our prayers, we say the following statement, “I hereby accept upon myself to fulfill the commandment or the positive act of loving your fellow man as yourself.” And loving your fellow man as yourself from a deeper Hasidic perspective is not to love someone outside of you. But to recognize that we are all part of one. Because we all come from Almighty God, we are a composite of a singular body, that includes everybody in the entire world.
Therefore, when we do a charitable act, it’s not something that we do for someone else. We bring kindness into the framework of our lives which makes the world a better place. So, it’s not “do me a favor, and please give us some charity. It’s ‘do yourself a favor and be part of a world that’s kind of good.’
The word, “Tzedekah,” which generally is utilized to express charitableness, actually means righteousness, which is the balance; Almighty God creates balance in this world. It doesn’t mean that a person has to give away everything he’s earned. But it means that one must share and make sure that the person next to him also has an opportunity to live a normal, proper life. That enhances his life as well.
And that dovetails immediately into “Tikkun Olam,” which means “correcting the world.” God created us in this world to make the world a better place. Why does he create an imperfect world? Because God creates an imperfect world perfectly. He wants us to participate with him and this partnership. God gives us the opportunity to share the correction of the world and the balance of the world and make the world a better place with him.
Then we come back to Almighty God and say, “We act that way. And, so, when it comes to judging us, judge us also with kindness.”
Q: You also founded a nonprofit organization called the Aleph Institute, which is “dedicated to assisting and caring for the well-being of members of specific populations that are isolated from the regular community.” Please say some more about the people you serve.
We conduct programs for people in what we call “limited environments.” We work with the military, for example, someone serving in the Sixth Fleet during a holiday far from family. The families of people who are serving on the front lines are very precarious. Every morning they wake up, and they hope everything is good. They turn on the radio and hope there’s nothing going on, because their husband, their daddy, their son, their brother or their sister, is right there on the front line.
And at the same time, you have a limited environment like a prison, and some of them are in very harsh conditions like on death row. Each human being has humanness within them. Even when you make a mistake, if you’re alive, you have worthiness. You have something positive to contribute. We work in environments that are extremely radical and polarizing at the edge of what you might call civilization.
Q: In addition to working with people in limited environments, Aleph also helps communities in crisis. For example, could you please share information about your work following the shocking collapse of the Surfside condominium in Florida?
That building was in our own community. Many people we know and are close to were victims of the tragic and unnatural event that took place. That was the most difficult Rabbinic obligation that I had ever had to deal with. In this instance, you could not console people because they did not want to hear their loved one might be gone. You couldn’t really give them hope. I was on that pile [of debris] every day dealing with the search and rescue teams. And we knew there was very little hope.
The only thing that we found that was effective was unconditional kindness. Every member of our staff became a staff member of an emergency team that supplied anything anybody wanted, ranging from a bottle of Coca-Cola to diapers to a computer, to a radio, to a place to sleep, to a place for your family, to an apartment, to food. Anything that anybody needed, under those circumstances, the answer was “yes, yes, yes, yes.” And we got it done.
Q: In October, you will join Philanthropy Roundtable for a panel discussion on the subject of faith and charitable giving during the organization’s Annual Meeting. On that topic, how do you encourage parents of faith as they seek to educate their children and grandchildren on the importance of kindness toward neighbors, love of one another and philanthropy?
I recently saw a controlled study in Denmark on the subject of genetics and famine. The study proposes that we have something called an epigene which lasts for four generations. If I have it, so will my child, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. That epigene is created not by thoughts, intelligence, intellect or emotion. It’s created by being your own behavior. So, if, for example, a person is charitable in behavior, his son will be charitable, his daughter will be charitable and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be charitable. They will have that innate character of charitability.
However, there’s a very important caveat. If someone is charitable, but he’s a miserable human being, and he abuses kids and doesn’t treat them properly, then the epigene will not continue because the person has a block and is suppressing it.
So, when you ask how to pass charitability on from generation to generation, number one, do it. And number two, do it sincerely with honesty because otherwise, the kids get it. Kids are the most sensitive things in the world. They are like Geiger counters. A child will walk into a room and will naturally go to the person who loves children, and will shy away from people that do not because they’re not blocked yet. They don’t have preconceived notions. They are still collecting. Learning something as a child is like writing on brand new paper. It’s crisp and clear. Learning something as an adult, it’s like rubbing up the paper many times. There is a blurriness. So that’s how you maintain continuity. Give charitably yourself and do it sincerely.
Q: As we move into the High Holidays and the season of giving, is there anything else you’d like to say about your work?
We have talked about people who have the capacity for making a difference through their financial blessings, but it is important to note that every single human being has the capacity to share and to give. Everybody can be a philanthropist in some way.