The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Why You Should Pick Up When I Call

Ethan Levin.jpeg

Thank you, Nashville’s Jewish community, for welcoming me as the new Donor Engagement Associate at the Federation. To be totally transparent, I have had no professional development experience before this role. In the past three years, I received academic training in Jewish Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and clinical chaplaincy training from Vanderbilt University Medical Center. This means that I am well read and can relate to folks from a variety of backgrounds, but by no means do I know how to ask for your money. Yet, believe it or not, it’s something I am excited to do. Let me explain why. 

Trying to maintain a persistent edge while remaining respectful and personable is the imperative tight rope of the Federation fundraiser. Talking to me should be like walking into an Israeli-owned jewelry store, intending to buy something for your wife, and instead walking out with a brand-new Rolex for yourself. Come to me ready to make a modest donation out of guilt, leave having made a major contribution with enthusiasm.  

The difference here is that the value that a Rolex brings to your aesthetic and overall brand is easy to see. The value of your gift to the Federation, on the other hand, can seem much less clear. From this lack of clarity rises the famous question that I hear quite often in this role: What is it that the Federation actually does? As a student of the Jewish tradition, I would like to first turn to the sources to answer this question (though to answer questions from Jewish sources is merely to raise more questions).  

I think it may be the case that Federation is the modern American iteration of an institution considered essential in Jewish communities for millennia. The Talmud, compiled in the 6th-7th centuries CE, says: “A Torah scholar may not live in a town that does not possess … a fund for charity” (Sanhedrin 17b). At that time, a town was not considered fit for the ethical and religious role model of Rabbinic Judaism if it did not contain an organized charitable foundation concerned with the wellbeing of the community. Maimonides elaborates on this Talmudic injunction in his 12th century CE Mishneh Torah, saying: “We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have such a fund for charity” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Mat’not Aniyim, chapter 9, halakhot 1-3). This is to say that it was virtually unthinkable to find a Jewish community without some sort of organized function for collecting and distributing charity.  

We see that this remains true today. Historically speaking, the Federation is the extension of a communal obligation or mitzvah to provide a safety net for the community, and particularly for those who might be struggling. Any Jewish community across North America that reaches a critical mass of Jews is compelled to begin a Federation, a centralized fundraising mechanism that works for the wellbeing of the Jewish community. This, of course, raises another question: What is the wellbeing of the Jewish community? Our Jewish tradition says the world stands on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim. These same three pillars are what the Federation seeks to support financially. I understand these categories as extending from but not totally bound to the classical rabbis understanding of them: 

  1. The Torah as supported by the Federation is the living Torah of Jewish educational and cultural activity. It spans everything from yeshivah-style study to stipends for early childhood education at our four preschools located within Jewish institutions, to programming featuring secular Israeli musicians.  
  1. Avodah is not just about prayer or worship in the classical sense, it is also about celebrating and empowering any space where two or more Jews gather in joy, sorrow, and every experience between. The Federation financially supports every kind of Jewish gathering that occurs in Nashville, from the synagogues in West Nashville and Williamson County to Moishe House and the East Side Tribe over East.  
  1. Lastly, the gemilut hasadim, acts of loving-kindness, that the Federation supports are acts of care for our local and global Jewish family. These include coordinating efforts to protect our Jewish institutions and gatherings (no small feat), caring for those in need in our community with dignity through supporting Jewish Family Services, and raising emergency funds following the October 7th attacks, funds that go directly to survivors and families of survivors on the ground in Israel. 

This is my formulation so far of “what it is that the Federation actually does.” I came to this through personal experience, having begun my position shortly after October 7. I have been able to see first-hand all the things that Federation does to try and support this community, even when it feels like the world is turning upside down. 

Now the question for me is, what is it that motivates someone to give? According to Jewish ethicist and economist Meir Tamari, the tradition of strong Jewish giving comes both from a place of obligation to fulfill a mitzvah or commandment as well as a place of mercy guided by the pangs of conscience that motivate someone to give charitably. I have seen both from donors here in Nashville. Those who have never given to the Federation before, Jews and non-Jews alike, gave generously to help heal the deep wounds following October 7. There are also those who give to the Federation every year because that is simply what you do as a member of the Jewish community. I love hearing from those “unicorns” of the Jewish community who have been in Nashville for generations and generations, and who have given to the Federation the entire time. 

So, if you get a call from me, know that I am not simply interested in your money. I am interested in what you feel commanded to do in your life, and what deep rooted values lead you to spend your hard-earned money in a fashion not directed towards personal self-interest. I want to hear how you envision yourself as part of a community that supports those in need and ensures its continued vibrancy and wellbeing. Hopefully, together, we can find some common ground that will benefit us all. 

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