A Tree of Life, and Light for Joy: Philanthropy After Terror

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All weekend as I watched the news, I wondered again what I’ve wondered before: why isn’t pain a zero sum game? Why can’t we spread the sadness thin by sharing it, until it almost disappears? Why is it rather that even though we all share the grief, it doesn’t diminish?

Looking at the pictures from Pittsburgh, I wished that the sorrow I felt could ease the unspeakable burden of grief faced by the families and loved ones directly touched. I wish I could take upon myself some of the pain that congregation Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha, and the broader community of Squirrel Hill, faces. But their pain doesn’t diminish, and mine grows. The heartache expands, seemingly inextinguishable. As Jeremiah proclaimed, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my people.”

Philanthropy comes from two Greek works, philos and anthropos: love and humanity. Being a Jewish philanthropist is having a love for humanity that forms concentric circles: expanding outward from our own to reach the world. Philanthropy starts with the emotion of love, so it’s necessary that we react to Pittsburgh with emotions: anger, grief, disbelief and outrage.

But funders are also communal leaders. Whether they ask for it or not, they are in the drivers’ seats of many communal programs and policies. In this time of anguish and fear, people will look to us for support, resources, and guidance. They will seek our empathy but also our calming leadership. So we need to give time and space for our emotions, but simultaneously, we need to seek a thoughtful and strategic response to this tragedy.

JFN is a global network. The tragedy that hit us this weekend, unfortunately, is not new to our members in Europe, Israel, and South America. So, as Jews, we have lessons learned from around the world. We can also draw from the experience of secular American philanthropy in the many tragedies – natural and man-made – that have hit North America.

Here are some elements in what a thoughtful philanthropic response might look like:

1. Balance immediate response with long-term planning

After every tragedy, the immediate response is overwhelming. We already have reports of great sums of money being raised for the families of the victims and for the Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha synagogue. But different challenges will emerge in the long term, once the catastrophe is out of the headlines and most people have moved on to the next event. Funders need to assist in the immediate aftermath, but they have a critical role in being strategically invested in the long term. There are many issues that will need attention in the weeks and months to come, from the fallout of trauma to security needs to community resilience.

2. Hardening targets while remaining welcoming

Jewish communities in Europe and South America have learned to become “hard targets”, meaning they have systems and mechanisms that can’t fully prevent and attack but can make it harder for terrorist to hit them. After the AMIA bombing in Argentina, all Jewish organizations built concrete barriers against car-bombs; after the attacks in France, the army was deployed in synagogues and schools. While some U.S. Jewish institutions ramped up security after the 2006 attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, most American Jews are not used to thinking in those terms. Yet, in a context of rampant hatred and free availability of deadly weapons, we may need to help more of our organizations become harder targets. The problem is that hardening organizations tend to make them less welcoming. Nobody wants going to shul to be like entering a fortress. Paradoxically, too much visible emphasis on security may end hurting more than helping in terms of communal resilience. So the challenge will be, in the next weeks and months, to find a model that can articulate security and openness, protection and homeliness.

3. Analysis and research

This attack comes within a context of racial hatred and intolerance. It’s no coincidence that, in a single week, America saw a series of mail bombs; an attempted shooting at a black church brought to murderous conclusion in a grocery store; and the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh. All these attacks shared a far right ideology that creates an intersectionality of hate, putting Jews, Blacks, Muslims, and immigrants in the same category of despised peoples. Being rightfully concerned with Islamic extremism, we may have become complacent towards this more traditional form of white supremacist hatred. As funders, we many need to invest more in researching, understanding, and fighting this brand of hatred that has proven extremely deadly for Jews and gentiles.

4. Advocacy and political action

Ultimately, meaningful change necessitates public policies, government funding, and political backing. Hiding behind a pretense of being “non-political”, we can try to ignore the gun issue, but the truth is that guns are common in mass killings in America. We can be horrified, but not surprised, that a mass shooting happened at a synagogue—after all, they’ve happened in schools, concerts, churches, and even army barracks. The sad truth is that in America it’s statically more dangerous to send your kid to school than to the Marines. And the solution to the gun issue is ultimately political. Political action is also needed in addressing other aspects of this issue, from public funds for security to the debasement of political discourse in America. Foundations need to be careful regarding what activities can be considered charitable when embarking upon political action and advocacy, but we can’t ignore them if we are to produce real change.

5. Communication, partnership and cooperation

Whenever disaster strikes, we see a lot of duplication and “stepping on toes”. Funders and organizations rush to help and the lack of coordination and communication makes the response less than optimal. Some areas or needs are overfunded while others don’t receive the necessary attention. We’ve learned from global experience that a coordinating mechanism for immediate and long term help is very important in streamlining help and making sure that no significant gaps remain in the response. Other parts of the Jewish world offer some insights in that regard. In Israel, the creation of “RAHEL” (the National Emergency Authority) after the Second Lebanon War made the philanthropic response to the subsequent Gaza wars more effective and efficient. The creation of the CST (Community Security Trust) in the UK helped provide a comprehensive view of the security needs of the entire community. Funders themselves need to create permanent consultative mechanisms around issues of security and resilience.


In the days and weeks to come, JFN will be working with our local, national, and international partners to identify ways in which funders can help both with immediate and long-term needs. Wanting to “do something” is not only morally correct, but therapeutic for ourselves and others. Much of the anguish and anxiety that these tragedies generate stems from the perception that the world is out of our control, and nothing is more distressing than helplessness. By doing what we can, we alter that reality and reclaim agency for ourselves and our communities.

As I said before, philanthropy is about loving our own and, by extension, all of humanity. It’s about making the world a better place, using our love as fuel and our hearts as compasses. Our philanthropy is about a sentence sanctified by a band of desert nomads 3,500 years ago: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”.

Now, in the face of despicable hatred, we need to raise our love of humanity as a banner. Because if pain is not zero-sum, neither is love.

The more we love, the more love there is. The more we care, the more caring there is. Our task now is to fight inexhaustible sorrow with inexhaustible love. Our task is to make sure that when these first tears dry, there’s no emptiness, but love. When these cries fade, there’s no coldness, but a caring embrace. Our task is to make real the words of the Song of Songs that say, “Love is stronger than death.”

The love of humanity in the face of this unspeakable tragedy can be our man-made miracle. Now, more than ever, we need to light beacons of hope and torches of love; we need to tend the wisdom that is our Tree of Life, and shine our light for all humanity’s joy—our Or L’Simcha.

After a historic tragedy, the Torah uses two ways to urge us never to forget: zachor and al tishkach, literally: “remember” and “don’t forget”. Rabbis interpret one to be passive: a process simply to keep the memory alive. The other is active: transforming memories into meaningful action. This is our challenge now. Don’t let the indignation and horror be buried with the victims; transform it into more love of the Jewish people, and all humanity, into more philanthropy, and more healing.

May the blanket of love we help knit cover all mourners and bring them comfort, in ways that our words can’t.

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