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Good News About Tzedakah

Yom Kippur Morning 5781

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

When I was just out of college, long ago, I wrote some pop songs with a friend of mine; I wrote the words, Bob wrote the tunes. One of those songs had the clever title, filled with early twenty-something angst, “We Are All in This Alone.” In my 20s those words seemed clever and pointed. But now? Now they seem naïve and, well, a little silly. Much of our lives are based on what we make of ourselves, or don’t, of course. But the truth is that we are all heavily dependent on the kindness of… other people. And, in particular, our own generosity of spirit.

In the Unetaneh Tokef section of our morning services that we sing on these High Holy Days—we did so a little while ago today--Ut’shuvah utefilah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah hagzeiarah, repentance, prayer and charity transform the severe decree. The entirety of this period is focused on Teshuvah, returning to the best person we can be, repenting our sins and repairing our lives. Lord knows, we do enough tefilah, enough praying, just on this long day of Yom Kippur, to satisfy any reasonable, or even unreasonable, God. But tzedakah, acts of charity, how do we do these on this holiest of all days, when even handling or carrying money is technically prohibited? So, let’s talk about that.

After the last six months, I figured we could all use a little good news this Yom Kippur, and just in time, an extraordinary story came out last week. It’s about a man named Chuck Feeney, and it captures the essence of the concept of tzedakah.

A long time ago, back in 1960, Chuck Feeney with his partner Robert Miller pioneered the concept of Duty Free Shoppers, founding the entire idea of all those airport shops selling luxury goods to travelers. They made a whole lot of money doing it, and then Feeney made even more with a private equity firm called General Atlantic. Eventually, about 40 years ago, Feeney’s personal net worth reached $8 billion dollars, with a “B.”

Chuck Feeney himself lived a life of what has been described as “monk-like frugality.” He never owned a car, rarely bought new clothes, owned only one pair of shoes at a time, flew coach, and didn’t care for the trappings of wealth and privilege. When in New York for business, he would crash at his daughter’s modest apartment.

But that is not what’s notable about him. There are many different ways that very wealthy people choose to spend their money, or not to spend their money. Some live lives that used to put them on the TV shows, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”—just cancelled, finally, by the way—or in ways suitable for parody on the TV shows “Succession,” or “Billions” or “The Politician.” Some super-wealthy people even use their money to run for high office, I am told. Others keep a low profile, often ostentatiously so, preferring to own super-private islands or barricade themselves in compounds. Still others are much more down-to-earth folks, making a show of staying in their original homes after they become super wealthy. There are lots of different ways to be extremely rich.

But what Chuck Feeney did that set him apart from other super-wealthy people was genuinely unique. Feeney determined to give away all his money during his lifetime to worthy causes, all 8 billion dollars of it. And he decided to do so quietly, anonymously.

Feeney comes from a working-class New Jersey family, the grandson of Irish immigrants, and instead of indulging himself, Feeney set up a foundation called The Atlantic Philanthropies in secret in 1982 and transferred almost all of his wealth into it. The charity had a very specific mission and a time-frame in which to fulfill that mission. It had 40 years to give away $8 billion dollars, nearly all of Feeney’s fortune. He did set aside $2 million for his and his wife’s retirement—1/400th of his total gelt—but all the rest he insisted had to be given away. And then his charity would close down, its goal completed.

Feeney, working anonymously with a board and some employees, made countless endowments to charities and universities across the world for 38 years. He gave more than $3.7 billion to higher education institutions, including almost $1 billion to Cornell University, where he studied hotel administration for free under the GI bill after service as a U.S. Air Force radio operator during the Korean War. Feeney donated $870 million to human rights groups, including $62 million in grants to groups campaigning to end the death penalty in the U.S., and $76 million to grassroots campaigns supporting the passage of the Affordable Care Act. He gave a tremendous amount of money to education for the underprivileged both in America and Ireland, where his ancestors immigrated from.

All that work of giving away money was completed last week, when the final checks were sent out. Feeney, who is now 89 years old, in a Zoom ceremony signed the paperwork dissolving Atlantic Philanthropies, its mission fulfilled.

Now I told you earlier that Feeney did all that giving anonymously, so how do we know about it? Well, after 25 years of this giving process, the opportunity came along for him to do some good by accepting publicity. His work came to light when journalist Conor O’Cleary wrote his biography, which Feeney approved solely with the specific goal of promoting ‘giving while living’ to other wealthy people. And Feeney, who did so much good on his own, did even more good by going public.

His selfless nature shocked other billionaires, including some tech mega-rich types, all of whom hail him as a notable role model. Bill Gates said that Feeney was the inspiration behind both the $30 billion-strong Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Giving While Living Pledge, which has enlisted more than 90 of the world’s richest to grant their wealth to charity.

Feeney said he hopes more billionaires follow his example and use their money to help address the world’s biggest problems. “I have always empathized with people who have it tough in life,” Feeney said. “And the world is full of people who don’t get enough to eat.”

A longtime employee who worked for Feeney for more than 30 years said that although his boss once tried to live a life of luxury, it didn’t suit him. “He had nice homes and nice things. He tried it on, and it wasn’t for him. He doesn’t own a house, doesn’t own a car. The stories of his frugality are true: he does have a $10 Casio watch and carry his papers in a plastic bag. That is him. That’s what he felt comfortable with, and that’s really who Chuck has been.”

A true philanthropist, Feeney has also been known to call out those with untold wealth and urge them to give back to the community. He would scratch his head at people who owned multiple yachts when, “You look around and see tremendous needs elsewhere. What am I going to do with all of it?” Feeney said, “Like many of the wealthy people today they have so much money that they wouldn’t be able to spend it.” And so he gave it all away.

As he signed the papers to formally dissolve his (now broke) foundation, Feeney said he was very satisfied with “completing this on my watch.” He urged other upper-class members not to wait until after they have died to experience the joy of giving away their fortunes.

Billionaire or not, everyone can take something from his words: “Wealth brings responsibility. People must define themselves or feel a responsibility to use some of their assets to improve the lives of their fellow humans, or else create intractable problems for future generations.”

It is quite wonderful that this story came out in time for Yom Kippur. Because after all, what did we sing about, again, on both Rosh HaShanah and this morning on Yom Kippur? U’teshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah, ma’avirin et ro’ah hagzeirah—repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.” We have talked about teshuvah quite a bit from Rosh HaShanah until now, and we certainly have prayed for forgiveness. But about tzedakah, not so much.

Well you don’t have to have the wealth that Chuck Feeney used to have, or Bill Gates’ wealth, to give tzedakah. You just have to be committed to helping others, and improving this world, what is called idiomatically Tikun Olam in Jewish tradition, a world in so much need of improvement right now.

I recently shared with you by email a story closer to home that came out in the Arizona Daily Star about one of our own Beit Simcha kids, or really, young adults, Drew Messing, who is 17 years old. Drew was the unpaid designated “Door Dash” driver for his parents and grandparents, and he realized that not all restaurants providing pick-up food were following the same sanitary protocols for Coronavirus protection. He decided to do something about it that would help both restaurants and the people depending upon them, and working with local restaurant owners, like my friend of longstanding Janos Wilder, he developed a program called COVID Clean. To date, more than 100 Tucson restaurants and eateries have taken the five-step pledge. Participating restaurants pledge to regularly disinfect and clean workspaces and equipment; pre-screen employees before starting work; require employees to wear a mask or face covering; instruct employees to use gloves whenever possible; and require employees to practice frequent handwashing.

Signing on to the program is free for the restaurants, which receive recognition for safe practices and can to market their COVID Clean status. COVID Clean has formed a partnership with the Pima County Health Department Ready for You program, which promotes a set of guidelines designed to protect employees and the public from the spread of COVID-19 as businesses re-open. On his own initiative, Drew Messing has helped local small businesses, has helped keep people most vulnerable to layoffs employed, and protected people from infection. And, frankly, this is a family tradition; his parents, Andrew and Claudine Messing, and grandparents Joe and Paulette Gootter, founded the Steve Gootter Foundation which has raised significant funds to eradicate sudden cardiac death through research, education and distribution of automated external defibrillators (AEDs), which have saved many lives.

Now, Drew is a pretty amazing young man, and frankly, I don’t think I could accomplish what he has done in such a short and challenging time. And Chuck Feeney is a Tzadik, and very likely one of the Lamed Vavniks of the world, if we can extend that tradition to non-Jews, which is fine by me. And if you are like me, you tend to say “Those people are fantastic, they make me feel good about being a human being again, but—I can’t realistically be expected to give away everything, or to try to help solve the economic disaster of the Coronavirus pandemic by myself.” And you would be right.

Only—that’s not really what’s necessary to fulfill the requirements of Tzedakah. I mean, if you can do such miraculous work, kol hakavod! Yasher koach! But if you can’t, well, there is a great deal that you can do.

You can support charities financially to your own donation level—and even a bit beyond that. I don’t just mean giving to our Congregation Beit Simcha High Holy Day Appeal, although of course we welcome that support in this challenging year. I mean deciding to have your pocket match your principles, and committing to give a set percentage, as Judaism asks, to tzedakah. It’s what we Jews do, isn’t it? It’s a commitment we make, to give to those causes we genuinely care about, those institutions that represent our values, in a meaningful way.

And even at a time when personal contact is so limited, when volunteering has become more complicated than ever before, you can volunteer to help at an organization that does good work, in ways that are safe and hygienic. You can help refugees in our community. You can donate packaged goods to the Community Food Bank. You can help with charities’ websites and tech work—they are always behind on this—or offer help in other ways.

You can volunteer to call members of our congregation, for example, just to check up on them. You can even do the things some of our members are doing now, who don’t want always to be identified by name: the people who edit our Shabbat leaflet every week and keep up our website, the people who helped us schlep so many times, who clean our synagogue every week, the people who created and distributed our Yom Kippur Yizkor Memorial Book, the people who bake and help others do so for our limited events now, who sing and play music, who read Torah, who file papers, who built this very bimah we enjoy, who wired our electricity and plumbing and fix our air conditioning, who donated and hung our Ner Tamid, who built our ark and Torah stand and pulpit and candle table and Tallit stand, who write Drashot each and every week, who teach our children, who provide security for us, who donated our Torah covers, who do our graphics and produce our mailers, who file our legal papers and prepare our budget, who donate our educational software, who set up our broadcasts and run our Facebook channel.

You can choose to do the important, sometimes seemingly small things that make this a better world in your own way.

Because Tzedakah is not always grand gestures, or even innovative ways to help others. It is our own way of righting the wrongs in this world by building on the concept of community.

We are not in this alone, not even during the COVID-19 crisis. Actually, we are all in this together; we share mutual responsibility to one another. We are here to help make this earth better. By doing tzedakah in every way we can.

May this be God’s will for us; but far more importantly, on this unique Yom Kippur, may this be ours. Gmar Chatimah Tovah.


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