Wandering in the Wilderness: Jewish Leadership, Values, and Partnership during an Economic Crisis

Perhaps this is your congregation: Your board is very worried as membership and school fees are slow to come in. Their search for solutions has started: Cut all employees’ salaries for the coming fiscal year by a set percentage? Significantly decrease the congregation’s contribution to employee health insurance? Lay off employees?

We Jews have a long history of wandering in the wilderness, the unknown, but it does not necessarily make difficult financial decisions during this crisis easier. Both professional and lay leaders wonder how to find a path forward in a manner reflecting the sacred partnership between employer and employee.  

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is not going away and, in fact, could get worse. As a result, downsizing or payroll reductions are part of current congregational conversations. Amid this stressful context, principles of equity and fairness can get lost. Instead, we urge Jewish professional and lay leaders to ensure that short-term fixes do not become worse than the problem. These fixes can break trust in the sacred partnership among clergy, staff, and community, harm the reputation of our congregations, and can lead to smaller, disconnected communities down the road.

First, the best practices of decision-making must be utilized. We are all operating, perhaps fearfully, in new territory. The health and well-being of the congregation is a shared communal responsibility—neither the rabbi nor the staff nor the lay leaders nor even the biggest donors can ensure congregational health alone. With that recognition, a process of careful, collaborative decision-making is needed. What sometimes appears to take too much time in terms of consulting with all stakeholders, gathering options, ensuring that there is understanding and acceptance allows the board to move fast once the decision is made. Furthermore, transparency—who made the decision? what factors were evaluated?—leads to more trust from stakeholders as well.

Second, keep equity in mind and bias at bay. While most claim gender is not a factor in employment, we often see this bias in unspoken assumptions. Sometimes these come straight from the worst assumptions in business—that an “ideal” worker is one who can devote the most time to work and has no other priorities. Under this fallacy, anything less than a full-time position is devalued (“if it’s so important, why isn’t it full-time?”) and employees with childcare responsibilities are assumed to be less committed. Bias also comes from assumptions that the woman’s salary is the “second” salary of the household and, therefore, not as needed (“let’s protect the male ‘breadwinner’ salaries at the expense of the ‘second’ salaries”).

A third consideration—we should not assume a fixed pie of assets or a fixed set of job descriptions and that there is nothing a congregation can do other than cut salaries. Here too, good processes can help. Some congregations have moved up or added to their fundraising calendars (successfully) to ensure their budgets are intact. For others, the congregation has been able to find creative ways to cut costs or shift personnel to new tasks (i.e. Zoom guru.) And, when budget cutting is unavoidable, consulting with those affected is crucial: Is health care coverage and pension more important than salary; is furloughing better than shifting to fewer hours; even gauging interest in early retirement or voluntarily reduced hours. Brainstorming with the Jewish professionals might reveal ideas that the board leadership have not considered. 

Our top suggestions to promote equity in a crisis:

  1. Check your bias—reflect on what assumptions go into how reductions and downsizing are decided.
  2. Double-check after scenario planning that there are not unintended consequences that particularly harm women, people of color, and other vulnerable populations—and then track this data. Correct, if needed, before continuing with the decisions. Repeat this process when re-staffing occurs: Who is brought back to full pay or full-time?
  3. Equity and equality are different. Fairness does not mean everyone is treated equally. People have different needs and are in different situations (i.e., across the board pay reductions are far more devastating at the lower end of the pay scale).
  4. The most highly compensated can take the lead on pay reductions or voluntary give-back donations. Publicize this broadly. This does not mean breaking contracts or strong-arming employees, however. Concessions should be free-will offerings.
  5. Balance between the economic health of the community and of the clergy and staff. For communities where the economic impact has not been so harsh, it is incongruous to insist on pay reductions. On the other hand, in communities hard hit, difficult decisions made in partnership are necessary.
  6. Consult with key stakeholders (community, clergy, staff, board, and other legal and financial experts) throughout the process. Go slow to go fast.
  7. Consider transparency at every step to build trust.
    • Make the decision-making process transparent (i.e., this is who we consulted) even when employment outcomes are private.
    • Consider the timing of announcements and the sharing of information, as well as the balance of what is private versus appropriate so that everyone feels included and supported.
    • Consult with affected parties how outcomes should be communicated (i.e., when layoffs are announced; with names or just positions; by whom and to whom).
  1. Trust is hard to build and even harder to rebuild—assume the relationship is a long term one and act accordingly. Even those laid off from a congregation often stay as members and are part of the community. The ripple effects of broken trust—feeling unfairly treated—will permeate the larger community.
  2. Remember that decisions made now accrue to the reputation of the congregation. These can both create stronger reputations when a crisis is handled well or can harm a reputation when decisions are poorly made. And, of course, this reputation affects future relationships among clergy, staff, the board, and the community.

At times of crisis, we want to move quickly, reacting immediately. However, that can yield unintended damage. In this wilderness, the financial unknown, we must lead with our Jewish values, utilizing the best practices of process to ensure equity and maintain the sacred trust in our communities.

Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network, co-leading the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, and her most recent anthology is
The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (CCAR Press: 2019). Andrea Kupfer Schneider is a Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Marquette University. 

[1] An earlier iteration of this article appeared in The Forward, Scribe Blog on July 7, 2020. This is based on a presentation available in the URJ Tent, produced in partnership by the Union for Reform Judaism, National Association for Temple Administration, Women of Reform Judaism, and Women’s Rabbinical Network on behalf of the Reform Pay Equity Initiative with funding from the Safety Respect Equity Coalition.


When Donors Behave Badly: Guiding Principles for Jewish Institutions

In light of CCAR Press’s publishing of The Sacred Exchange: A Jewish Money Ethic, edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, earlier this year, we invited Rabbi A. Brian Stoller to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

What should a synagogue or Jewish institution do when a donor is known to be involved in illegal or immoral activity? Imagine that after a synagogue dedicates a newly renovated sanctuary, the beloved community elder who gave more than a million dollars toward the project is indicted for embezzlement. Suppose that a prominent nursing-home proprietor, whose facilities have a reputation for unclean conditions and abusive treatment of residents, offers to provide scholarships for needy kids to go to summer camp. We seek to be guided in our response to these situations by the moral voice of our tradition. While there are few clear-cut answers, our texts provide certain principles that can inform our decision-making.

What happens when two moral obligations conflict with each other?

A CCAR responsum on the case of a synagogue contribution by a criminal points out that it is a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to support the synagogue financially.(1) The Reform Movement has said that communal organizations should not refuse a donation from a person of questionable character because we do not have the right to prevent someone from fulfilling his religious obligations.(2) Moreover, denying the would-be giver the opportunity to do a mitzvah would further alienate him from the righteous path. As Maimonides says, “We do not tell a wicked person: ‘Increase your wickedness by failing to perform mitzvot.’”(3)

At the same time, accepting the donation may violate a different mitzvah, namely the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind. As Jewish business-ethicist Meir Tamari suggests, a person may be “blind, so to speak, to the moral consequences of his actions.”

(4) By accepting the gift, therefore, we might inadvertently encourage the donor to continue in these errant ways and cause the donor to stumble further.

These conflicting moral obligations cannot both be operative at the same time, but the sources suggest that there are circumstances in which one or the other should take precedence.

What causes money to become “dirty?”

According to Deuteronomy 23:19,(5) payment for prostitution (which is forbidden by the Torah) and the monetary value of dogs used by hunters and watchmen to intimidate the public (which are lawful but unseemly activities(6)) are unacceptable as donations to the Holy Temple.(7) Maimonides rules that “when one steals or obtains an object through robbery and offers it as a sacrifice, it is invalid and the Holy One hates it.”(8) That principle suggests that the Torah regards money and anything else acquired through illegal and immoral means as “dirty” and unfit as an offering. Therefore, should someone seek to make such a donation, the synagogue or communal entity should refuse to accept it, even though doing so would prevent the person from fulfilling his obligation.

But if money gained through illegal or immoral activity is “dirty,” what about money that is earned on the up-and-up by someone who behaves immorally in other areas of her life? Is there a difference between a donation from Bernie Madoff, who acquired his wealth through theft and fraud, and a donation from Harvey Weinstein, who earned his money legitimately but sexually harassed and manipulated countless women? In a relevant discussion, Maimonides holds that a kohein (priest) is not disqualified from performing his religious duty on account of immoral behavior in his non-priestly life unless he commits one of the three cardinal sins of Rabbinic Judaism: idolatry, illicit sex, or murder.(9) Following this reasoning, could modern institutions say that immoral behavior unrelated to how one’s money is gotten should not disqualify a donor from carrying out her religious duty unless she commits an act that the community regards as a cardinal sin? If so, what actions would rise to that level?

Should the Donor be Acknowledged Publicly?

The sources raise two key concerns about publicly honoring a donor of dubious character. One is that acknowledgment will draw constant, unwanted attention to this sinful behavior. The other is that people of ill-repute will “utilize a gift to the synagogue [or other Jewish institution] as a means of purchasing a good name”(10) and atoning for their sins.(11) In order to avoid these outcomes, the Reform Movement recommends that organizations accept the donation but not publicly acknowledge the donor unless and until he does t’shuvah and abandons the immoral behavior.

Organizations should not accept donations of items that are known to have been gotten illegally. Beyond this, the guiding principles outlined here leave room for leaders to exercise judgment based on communal values and the nuances of each situation. While decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, institutions benefit from intentional conversations about core values and principles that guide their approach when donors behave badly.

Rabbi A. Brian Stoller serves Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska.


  1. CCAR Responsa Committee, “Synagogue Contribution from a Crimi- nal,” Central Conference of American Rabbis, accessed September 17, 2018, Readers should con- sult this responsum for a thorough analysis of the relevant halachic issues.
  2. See the CCAR responsum cited above, as well as Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (New York: UAHC Press, 2001), 45.
  3. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot N’siat Kapayim 15:6. Translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Tefilah II and Birkat Koha- nim (New York: Moznaim, 2007), 218.
  4. Meir Tamari, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995), 32.
  5. Deut. 23:19 states: “You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Eternal your God in fulfillment of any vow,  for both are abhorrent to the Eternal your God.”
  6. In his comment to Deut. 23:19, Abraham ibn Ezra explains that “the pay of a dog” refers to activity that, although not forbidden, is “disgraceful” (derech bizayon).
  7. These explanations of the phrases “the fee of a whore” and “the pay of a dog” are given by Rashi and Nachmanides in their commentaries to the verse.
  8. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Isurei Mizbei-ach 5:7. Translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Sefer Ha’Avodah (New York: Moznaim, 2007), 334.
  9. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot N’siat Kapayim 15:1–6, esp. halachot 3 and 6.
  10. Washofsky, Jewish Living, 45.
  11. See Nachmanides’s comment to Deut. 23:19.

Wealth as a Blessing and Challenge: A Further Look at the Sources

In celebration of the release of CCAR Press’s newest publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we share an excerpt of the chapter that Dr. Alyssa Gray wrote.

The teachings of our tradition in large part agree that wealth is a blessing. However, a nuanced view of the sources provides us with clear-eyed cautions about the spiritual, psychological, and social costs that come with the pursuit of wealth and with our possession of it.

Being Wealthy Is a Good Thing

There is no shortage of biblical verses supporting this proposition. Let us look at the role that God’s bestowal of the blessing of wealth plays in the crafting of the character of Abraham, the father of Israel. Wealth and divine favor go hand in hand. Abram leaves Haran with wealth (Gen. 12:5) and is described as rich in “livestock, silver, and gold” (Gen. 13:2). He is concerned that the king of Sodom not be able to take credit for his wealth (Gen. 14:23) but does accept silver and flocks from Abimelech (Gen. 20:14–16). His servant Eliezer opens his speech to Abraham’s relatives about his mission to find a wife for Isaac by stressing that “the Eternal has blessed my master exceedingly and made him rich” (Gen. 24:35).

The Book of Proverbs later says that “in her [Wisdom’s] right hand is length of days; in her left, riches and honor” (Prov. 3:16). Wisdom “herself” later says, “Riches and honor belong to me, enduring wealth and success” (Prov. 8:18). The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 25b) builds on Proverbs’ linkage of wisdom, riches, and honor: while Rabbi Yitzchak teaches that one should face south while praying to obtain wisdom and north to obtain wealth, Rabbi Y’hoshua ben Levi teaches that one should always face south, as wisdom leads to wealth (citing Prov.3:16). At the very least, this Talmudic passage demonstrates that seeking and acquiring wealth is viewed positively.

The Devastating Spiritual, Psychological, and Social Consequences of Greed

What of those who remain trapped by the feverish desire for possessions and a cycle of perpetual accumulation for its own sake? Mishnah Avot 2:7 states that the one who increases his possessions increases his worries. This increase in worry, if taken to an extreme, can become spiritually damaging. Commenting on Exodus 16:4 (“I will rain down bread for you from the sky . . . that I may thus test them”), Luntschitz points out that those who have more possessions than they actually need are too busy maintaining their lifestyle “to engage in Torah.” We may discern another consequence of the endless drive for accumulation in a responsum of Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, the Rashba (Barcelona, 1235–1310)—the emergence of an “us and them” mentality, separating the very wealthy and the needy. Adret harshly criticizes people he labels the “magnificently wealthy” for their plan to dismantle the local social welfare apparatus and compel the local poor to beg, all because (as he sees it) they wished to save themselves the money needed to maintain it.

Taken to an extreme, greed can fray social bonds so much that social breakdown results. JT Yoma 1:1, 38c claims that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE despite widespread engagement in Torah study because the people “loved money” and hated each other without cause. Although the Jerusalem Talmud does not connect these two social ills, they can reasonably be seen as mutually reinforcing.

Unchecked greed can dehumanize the greedy. BT Sanhedrin 109a recounts that the people of Sodom would deposit bundles of fragrant spices with wealthy people, who would put the bundles in their treasure chests. At night the greedy people of Sodom would sniff out the bundles like dogs and tunnel to steal the treasures. They allowed their greed to distort their humanity and began behaving like animals. The end point of such untrammeled accumulation is rebellion against God; according to BT Yoma 86b, Moses held God responsible for Israel’s worshiping the Golden Calf, because God gave them so much silver and gold when they left Egypt that they yelled, “Enough!” Their sense of spiritual self was entirely overwhelmed by the excess of gold and silver—and God was to blame! In the twentieth century, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan warned that the unchecked pursuit of luxuries could lead people down a path of “robbery, violence, and also disgrace and shame.”

Dr. Alyssa Gray is the Emily S. and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman Chair in Rabbinics and Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature at HUC-JIR in New York. 


Dreaming a New American Economy

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we invited Rabbi Andy Kahn to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

The central notion of the American Dream, that every person is equally capable of working towards a life of prosperity and happiness, may remain, but only as a dream. That ideal based itself upon the belief in an equal playing field[1] for all Americans. Through tax legislation, corporatization, dismantling of social safety net programs, and wealth channeling directly to the upper echelons of the economic elite, the nature of the system upon which the American Dream rested has been altered in such a way that this dream no longer corresponds to reality.[2] In the face of this situation, Judaism can provide us excellent examples of responses to similar dramatic change. We can, with the power of our visionary tradition, construct a new dream for the American future based in Jewish values.

As vessels of Torah, we can return to our dreams from the past as guides to help us forge a new way forward in America. Like the prophecies of Isaiah,[3] this new dream must aid all people in our country in finding their way to a better, more sustainable life. I suggest three sources of guidance: Cain and his descendants’ reaction to their world changing; the Israelites’ response to a new mode of collectivity in the desert; and the dreams of the future yet to come – that of the Messianic era.

Cain, when cast out of Eden and cursed to have his work on the land never yield fruit, was placed in a brand-new world. He, unlike Adam, was given no directive as to how he would survive – only that he wouldn’t be murdered himself. His response to this new reality? To construct the first city.

Cain having been notified that agriculture was no longer an option for him, went to work cultivating a collective that birthed new modes of production into the world. Rather than languishing in irrelevance, Cain and his offspring found new ways to contribute to society. From Cain and his children, we learn that we can view our own new, scary economic reality as an open canvas. We can choose the palette with which we paint. It is almost impossible to imagine our current society without the fundamental technologies attributed to Cain and his offspring – now, how innovative can we become to create equally new and groundbreaking ways of being and expressing humanity?

D’var acher – another example. The Israelites in the desert were emerging from generations of slavery in Egypt, and in need of a new way of organizing themselves. Just like Cain, Moses brought forth a new, this time God-ordained, technology – the Mishkan, an innovation meant to maintain connection between the People of Israel and God.[4] When Divinely directed to collect the resources for the Mishkan, the Israelites were specifically asked to do so with nedivut lev, the free will of their hearts.[5] In practice, this meant that people with particular skills or resources volunteered what was needed for the project.

This new social formulation gives us insight into our Scriptures’ view of human and communal nature. The Israelites’ went above and beyond of their own accord. In our day and age, this is a revolutionary outlook. It is often assumed that people are unlikely to contribute resources or energy to projects without extrinsic rewards or punishments. Due to this, the jobless or impoverished are often devalued to the point of being dehumanized (referred to as “drains on the system,” for instance), and individuals seek jobs, and in particular socially valued jobs, at any cost, whether or not they have a desire to perform the actual role. Humans, according to this piece of Torah, when in meaningful community and given a clear, direct need, will jump at the chance to contribute. This view is continued in the grand Torah of the future – the Messianic age.

For Rambam, the ultimate state of Messianic redemption is one in which people no longer have to compete for resources.[6] In essence, this means that all needs will be provided for, and the individual will be able to pursue one’s own knowledge of God. Perhaps we can tie this vision to the Mishkan, and the individual knowledge of God may be construed as the individual’s nedivut lev, one’s own free will to enact one’s own God-given abilities in pursuance of collective Good.

As the 1999 CCAR Pittsburgh Platform states, “Partners with God in tikkun olam, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age…We are obligated to pursue tzedek, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor…to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage.”[7]

These values central to the Reform movement commit us to pursuing a new Jewish dream for America’s future. We, the vessels of such a boldly hopeful Torah, can take the lead in realizing a new vision for the future of our beloved home in America. As we stride bravely into the uncharted territory of our country’s future, the guiding values of our Torah will provide us the dreams we need in order to to build a new, better future, free of bondage for all people.

[1] We must also recognize that this equal playing field never truly existed for all people and has always been particularly difficult to reach for people of color and women.
[2] Bartlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream, Public Affairs; 1 edition (July 31, 2012), pp xvii-xx
[3] In particular, Isaiah 2:3.
[4] Exodus 25:8
[5] Exodus 35:5-29.
[6] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 12, trans. Reuven Brauner, 2012. [,]
[7] CCAR, A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, Pittsburgh, 1999,, Accessed June 26, 2018.

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City. The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic is now available for pre-order.


Dividends of Meaning: Jewish Rituals for the Financial Lifecycle

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we invited Rabbi Jen Gubitz to share an excerpt of the chapter that she wrote.

When Hyman retired from his job, he gathered with his community and rabbi to ritualize this major transition in his life. This Jewish ritual began as many do —his wife Ann placed a kippah on Hyman’s head, they lit candles, and blessed wine. Then Hyman put his briefcase down on the ground and asked aloud: “As I enter the years of retirement and aging: Will I be bored or stimulated? Will I feel useless or valuable? Will I be lonely or involved with others? Will I feel despair or hope?” “Only the years to come can answer those questions,” the rabbi responded, “but tonight we can do several things to help Hy through his transition.

  • First, we have brought seven gifts.
  • Second, we can follow the traditional Jewish custom of offering tzedakah in Hy’s honor. The money will be given to the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.
  • Third, we can scare away the demons as our ancestors did with the blast of the shofar.”

Upon the conclusion of a final shofar blast, Hyman was declared a Bar Yovel, a “Son of the Jubilee,” released from professional employment with the opportunity to move on to a new stage in life.[i]  To mark his new status, Hyman also took on an additional Hebrew name.

A donation dedicated to the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, a briefcase, candles, and the shofar: From the mundane to the holy, these are the ritual items used to mark a financial and life transition. This category of ritual does not celebrate the eight-day old baby, a child entering Jewish adulthood, or the beloveds under their wedding canopy, but the retiree, enhancing a significant moment of the secular financial life cycle. In addition to celebrating retirement, Jewish ritual and wisdom has the means to frame and celebrate seemingly amorphous and mundane financial moments, from opening a bank account to getting a first credit card, from purchasing and owning a car, to the first or the last mortgage payment on the place called home; from receiving a scholarship to remitting that final student loan payment to submitting a final tuition payment for a child’s education; from cutting up credit cards to tackling debt to earning money through labor and investments, and accruing money through saving; from retiring from a primary career to transitioning to a second or third.

However, a personal survey of literature and clergy’s stories among various faith traditions revealed surprisingly few rituals, prayers or poems to mark these significant moments in life. The distinct transitional moments of the financial life cycle clearly lie beyond the arc of the traditional framework of Jewish ritual and its marking of loving relationships, childbearing, welcoming, learning, illness, and loss. Judaism brims with ritual and recognition of the formal family life cycle, yet these days many of us live longer, causing the gap in time between classic Jewish life cycle events to increase dramatically.  Moreover, the only experiences in life we all have in common today are birth and death. Many of us do not even aspire or are able to reach or mark the traditionally ritualized moments of the Jewish life cycle that happen in between, causing a dearth of ritual in progressive Jewish life.

There is tremendous opportunity to broaden the scope of private and communal Jewish ritual to encompass moments of the life cycle in connection to money and finances. With sensitivity to the many in our midst who work endless hours and years without reaching the financial milestones that would relieve them of their crippling debt or acknowledge their life’s investment, this type of ritual innovation can have a transformative impact on the Jewish community, particularly on the demographics of people least attracted or immediately connected to Jewish living, such as millennials and baby boomers. Money and its impact on our lives is part of the reality of living in the world. We are not, yet, allowing Judaism to permeate this part of our lives, bridging the realities of secular living and Jewish practice. That said, over the last 20 years Jewish ritual has been the subject of many innovations, and some of our new rituals do attempt to make our financial life cycle part of our spiritual lives.

[i] This Ritual of Retirement was adapted from a “Life Cycle Passages” class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1983. The ritual is published online at

Rabbi Jen Gubitz serves Temple Israel of Boston.  She is also a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming book, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic