A Jewish View on Giving

Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein talks #GivingTuesday and how his Jewish faith determines the way in which he gives back. 

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- Posted on Nov 24, 2015

Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein talks #GivingTuesday and how his Jewish faith determines the way in which he gives back.

When Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein decided to leave the pulpit at Central Synagogue after 23 years, he wasn’t quite sure what he’d do next.

“I decided that it was time to try another chapter, not really knowing what that chapter was going to be,” Rubinstein tells Guideposts.org.

He eventually landed at 92nd Street Y (92Y), one of New York City’s most prestigious Jewish cultural centers, taking on the duties of Director of Jewish Community and the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.

Though he still serves as Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Emeritus, Rubenstein found a much wider audience at 92Y.

“The Y has a reach beyond its immediate community and it thinks globally,” Rubinstein affirms. “It provides an opportunity for people to approach Jewish life differently without necessarily proclaiming themselves a member of a denomination. That’s a role that I think I can fill well because I was nursed on multi-faith relationships.”

Through his new role at 92Y, Rubinstein was introduced to the global, interfaith movement, #GivingTuesday. The social media activist campaign held on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving encourages everyone to donate to and volunteer for charities and non-profits. It began at the storied 92Y and was the philanthropic brainchild of its executive director Henry Timms. The two men, who work closely together, have seen the hashtag movement affect lives both locally and globally, but according to Rubinstein, they have differing viewpoints on why one ought to give.

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“Being rooted in Jewish life, I disagree a little bit with Henry,” Rubinstein good-naturedly tells us.

While Timms’ movement revolves around the idea of charity as an act spurred by desire, one that comes from the heart, Rubinstein explains how his Jewish faith informs a different approach to philanthropy.

“The Jew doesn’t need to give from the heart,” Rubinstein explains. “The word charity in its Latin means “love.” Our word in Hebrew is tzedakah and it comes from the word for justice. Tzedakah is a mitzvah – it’s not a good deed, it’s a commandment. What the Jew believes is that it has to be part of your life.”

Rubinstein learned of this commandment as a child, thanks to stories he was told about his grandfather, who seemed to be known by every money lender in their neighborhood.

“Every week he’d go and pay back a money lender and the family couldn’t figure out why,” Rubinstein shares.

It wasn’t until his grandfather died and his family went through his things that they discovered stacks and stacks of charity receipts.

“Even though he couldn’t afford it, he couldn’t start the Sabbath without giving to someone in need,” Rubinstein says. “So he would borrow money, in order to give tzedakah, and then he would pay it back fully over the following week.”

His grandfather's example, that giving to those in need is a commandment that should be followed, has stuck with him into his adulthood.

“That is, for me, a very profound lesson about what it means to give,” Rubinstein says. “I would hope that everybody loves giving, but the person that’s hungry can’t wait for that. I think, more likely, they would want to depend on the person who may not do it necessarily from the heart but will do it because it’s a responsibility, a commandment and therefore do it regularly.”

Still, the way #GivingTuesday has been able to connect millions of people across the world through a common cause of giving is something he’s happy to see.

“Social media allows us to be in the lives of millions of people,” Rubinstein says. “Because we’re Jewish, we have to reach out beyond our four walls. We have never been responsible only for ourselves. That’s a lesson that social media allows people to kind of research for themselves. It’s given greater exposure to ways to give back that aren’t just about giving money.”

Just as many Christians are concerned about the commercialization of Christmas, Rubinstein says Hanukkah has also been negatively impacted. The holiday, he says, is now reduced to jelly donuts, dreidels and not one, but eight days of gift giving.

He hopes this year people can focus on the true reason for the season.

“Giving is not [about] giving gifts only to family -- it’s giving to the world, to creation, to humanity. That’s the commercialism that we can create,” Rubinstein says. “It’s not about going out and buying toys, it’s about sharing the light that you have in your life with others who may not have it.”

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