Women in Philanthropy: Jewish Models and Stories to Inspire the Next Generation

June 3, 2012

Annual Mosaic Women’s Philanthropy Luncheon - June 3, 2012

by Laurie L. Patton, Dean of Arts & Sciences, Duke University

I am delighted to be able to join you today at the annual Mosaic gathering, and want to thank Sam Norton for her kind invitation and Ellen Singer for all her work on the program. Since beginning a conversation with you all on the topic of women and philanthropy, I began to think about what would be most useful to say. I could begin by saying the usual thing—that we are all philanthropists, no matter how small the amount is that we give. I could also begin by saying that we can be philanthropists with our time as well as our material resources, and this too would be true. These things are often said about philanthropy, and they bear repeating in all sorts of contexts when we are considering the good of the world.

But I want to say something more powerful and more reflective of the life of philanthropy as I have begun to know it as the new Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke University. I want to talk about the soul of philanthropy.  I have spent the year traveling and talking about why Duke matters in the world. Indeed, I am about to leave again tomorrow, on a fundraising trip, or as the Buddhists would say, the journey with the begging bowl. And I have been astounded at how many people want to give, want to engage, and want to find a way to connect with the communities of higher education. And it has inspired me to increase my own giving—for the simple reason that I have seen other people who also want to be generous.  And because I have really come to love this particular aspect of my job, I am now thinking all the time about how and why we give, and what the soul of giving is. And I have been thinking about how we can inspire the next generation.

Let me begin by making a distinction between charity and philanthropy. Charity is defined as giving to the needy, and it tends to be transactional in nature—that is, it focuses on a particular need or a particular individual at a particular time. And while philanthropy surely involves charity, the Greek literally means the love of human kind, philos + anthropos, and thus it is closer in definition to that form of tzedakah which is tikkun olam—the healing of the world. Philanthropy always has the building up of the community in mind; it cannot exist without engaging in community its practices.

As I thought about this aspect of philanthropy, I realized that we might think about three stages to becoming philanthropic—whether with our time, money, space, or expertise. The first, I believe, is coming to understand that one has the capacity to give. And this is no easy feat. The second is coming to choose, and be chosen by, a community in which to become involved. And the third is developing an awareness of the transformational power of giving, both of the community and of oneself.

I wanted to share stories of three women philanthropists—one Biblical, one renaissance, and one whom I just spoke to yesterday and who is reflecting on her philanthropy right now in New York City. And as I tell their stories, I will focus on the three questions above: first, how we understand ourselves as having the capacity to give—a task I believe that can sometimes be much harder to women than for men in our society; second, how we choose and are chosen by the communities we give to; and third, how we are profoundly changed by the engagement.

Let me begin with one Biblical woman who was a philanthropist with her time and expertise.  The Midrashic authors tell us that there had been, as Miriam wandered with her people, an abundance of fresh water that followed Miriam wherever she and her people went.  The well ascended the mountains with them, and descended with them to the deep valleys, going around to each Israelite at the door of his tent and giving sustenance. And in Numbers 20.1, we read of Miriam’s death.  The biblical passage that tells of Miriam’s death is followed by a single line, “and the people were thirsty.” The juxtaposition of these two passages is where the Midrashic authors took the opportunity to tell us about Miriam’s well.  So, the sages tell us, the people become thirsty because there is no one there any more to take care of their thirst as Miriam did. She was as equal a source of strength and sustenance to the Israelites as her brothers Moses and Aaron. And her philanthropy is clear: as long as she lives, she blesses and nurtures her community.

Tradition does not tell us about that first stage of philanthropy in Miriam’s life—how she came to understand that she had such extraordinary powers. But we often associate her with water.  Miriam is a guardian of her community from the very beginning of her life, when she hides in the reeds by the river to make sure her brother, who has been set afloat in the river, is found and nurtured. Miriam is also the one to sing by the sea, triumphantly, and her song is the one we frequently remember when we recite the Exodus story. So perhaps because of her long association with water, she knew that she could harness that familiarity with the elements and nurture her people with aquatic philanthropy.

What about the second stage—how did Miriam choose and get chosen by her community? We know that Miriam was part of her community from the very beginning; so in a sense she did not choose it. But there is another sense in which Miriam did choose community, over and over again. There is a Midrash that, in order to avoid the horrible Pharaoh’s decree that the first born child of all the Hebrews be killed, Moses’ father and mother divorced after they had Aaron and Miriam and before they had Moses. And it was Miriam who persuaded the parents to get back together in order to risk having another child, and to keep the heritage of the Jewish people alive.

In another, more painful episode, Miriam’s contracted leprosy. The Lord was angry with her for speaking out against Moses’ wife, who is not an Israelite.  The disease of leprosy meant that means that she had to go into temporary exile;  thus she was also rejected by her community. One wonders: was Miriam’s well still available to the Israelites, even while she was in exile? Did she remain true to her philanthropic power?  We do not hear of any Israelite going thirsty at that time. Eventually, Miriam did recover and rejoined the community. The text tells us, “And the people journeyed not until Miriam was brought in again.” Thus she chose, and was chosen by, her community, again.

As to that third element of philanthropy: the Bible does not give us clear sense of how Miriam herself might have been transformed by her own philanthropic power—the giving of water. But the Midrash certainly does give us a sense of the well’s transforming power for the community.  As the Targumim put it, God gave the Israelites this well because of the merits of the Miriam. To be sure, some texts argue that when Miriam died, so did the well. Others say that the well is still at the bottom of the ocean.  But the majority of sources tell us that the well is still here, and that Israelites, and the Jewish people until today, have been profoundly changed by the water within it. Folktales tell us that the well can still be found traveling from place to place, wherever Jews can be found. Wherever a minyan gathers, it is possible to drink from the well.  In other words, the well has become the metaphor for all that is possible in the Jewish community. Once, when I was teaching at Hebrew University and discussing the irrigation techniques that Israeli gardeners are so famous for, the groundskeeper said to me, “It’s just Miriam’s well.”

I turn now to a philanthropist in the more traditional sense—Dona Gracia Nasi, also known as Beatrice di Luna, who lived in the 16th century.  Gracia was a Marrano—someone who had been forced to renounce her Jewish faith and live as a Christian. In 1528 she married Francisco Mendes, also a Marrano, who built a business empire in jewels and banking. After he husband died in 1537, she left Portugal and went to the Low Countries and joined her brother-in-law and his aristocratic society. There she helped the Marranos escape the inquisition in Portugal and come to Flanders.

After her brother-in-law’s death in 1545, she left Flanders and most of her property behind and settled in Venice. Even there, she was denounced as a Judaizer by her own sister and moved to the Italian city of Ferrara. By the time she settled in Ferrara, she decided to cast off her Christian identity altogether and claim her Jewish name of Gracia Nasi again.  She continued in Ferraro what she also had done in the Low Countries, which is to protect fugitive Marranos who were escaping from Portugal. We can also guess that part of her philanthropy was using her already established contacts in Portugal and Northern Europe to finance these escape routes and make them viable.  Also in Ferrara, she sponsored the influential Ferrara Bible (1553), a vernacular Spanish translation of the Hebrew Bible produced by Abraham Usque and Yom Tov ben Levi. 

Dona Gracia Nasi also continued this activity in Constantinople, where she moved in 1553. Under the relative safety of the Ottoman Empire, she also conducted the more traditional philanthropy of giving liberally to scholars and academies, hospitals and synagogues. Jews in the Ottoman Empire made her giving all the more welcome; with their encouragement, she also established a yeshiva and synagogue in the Ottoman capital. The Yeshiva was called the “academy of the Geveret” (this name was also one she was known by) and the “synagogue of the Señora,” respectively. In 1559, as ex-conversos continued to come to Constantinople, she supported the foundation of yet another synagogue.

Dona Gracia Nasi’s commercial activity and philanthropy were also accompanied by political protests. In 1565 she tried to organize a boycott in Italy to protest the burning of 26 Marranos at the stake.  At the end of her life, she even tried to establish a yeshiva in Israel. She was given 1000 ducats by the Sultan to create a settlement and a school in the then-ruined city of Tiberias. She also gave donations to rebuild other cities in Israel. She died in 1569, possible in Israel itself.

Dona Gracia Nasi’s life was dramatic, if not melodramatic, but also deeply dedicated to Jewish causes. And while we do not have her writings, we know that she understood she had the capacity to give from an early age.  She was born a Marrano, but her giving, when it started, was always more dedicated to Jewish causes than Christian ones. Scholars all agree that her family as well as that of her husband’s, the Nasi family, were almost certainly practicing Jewish customs in secret, despite their Christian veneer. Her sense of her capacity to give and to survive may well have been what helped others survive under her tutelage.

Second, Dona Gracia Nasi’s community was chosen and chosen over and over again, as she moved from place to place in Southern and Northern Europe. Each of the governments she lived under had changing laws which made Marranos vulnerable to charges of Judaizing, and her fortune made her particularly vulnerable to such charges. That she decided, when in Ferrara, to stop the disguise of Christianity altogether, and live openly as a Jew is extraordinary. She continued this practice in Constantinople, where most of her visible philanthropy was conducted. And clearly, as the various dedications to her suggest, the community also chose her.

And we see the transformative power of Dona Gracia Nasi’s philanthropy in the memory of those yeshivas and synagogues in Istanbul today. We see the transformative power of her sponsorship in the only attempt to create a Jewish settlement in Palestine between the 4th and the 19th centuries.  We know that there are circulars invited the Jewish communities of Italy to settle there, and the rebuilt walls of Tiberias in 1564-65 are there because of her sponsorship. It is said she also helped to restore the cities of Jaffa, Safed, and Jerusalem. She may well have planted in Renaissance Europe one of the earliest seeds of Zionism.

And we move now to a much more contemporary, and perhaps approachable Jewish woman philanthropist—Ellen Lowey.  Ellen grew up in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and has become a philanthropist as she has settled into her life with her family in New York City. She started supporting Figure Skating in Harlem because of her daughter, who began volunteering there at ten years old.

As its website states,

“Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH) is a pioneering not-for-profit organization that provides girls ages 6-18 with vital educational and skating opportunities that build self-worth and promote physical well being and academic achievement. Our on and off-ice classes teach perseverance, responsibility, teamwork and leadership in a safe and positive environment.

Figure Skating in Harlem's (FSH) mission is to transform young lives and help Harlem girls to grow in confidence, leadership and academic achievement. Figure Skating in Harlem wants to empower every young girl with the confidence and foundation to achieve her dreams. She will be a powerful speaker, an effective leader, live a healthy lifestyle, and be a global citizen.


And this is how the organization tells its history:

In 1989, the Princeton and Yale women's ice hockey teams conducted ice skating clinics with a handful of girls from the Harlem-based agency, Upward Inc. The students so enjoyed the ice skating clinics that they expressed an interest in learning to figure skate. Sharon Cohen, a former competitive figure skater (U.S.F.S.A. double gold medalist) and Brown University and New York University graduate, volunteered to work with these girls, and soon, their excitement about the sport inspired Sharon to start Figure Skating in Harlem, a rigorous figure skating and academic enrichment program. In 1997, Figure Skating in Harlem officially separated from Upward Inc. and incorporated as a non-profit in the State of New York, expanding its program to serve girls throughout the Harlem community.

I first got to know Ellen Lowey when she spoke about this work with FSH at a breakfast in New York City. And she positively glowed. She spoke about the fact that since its opening ten years ago, the integration of the skating and the educational programs has increased, how the staff has grown to over thirty people, and how the organization hosts four large events in New York City in which parents, business leaders, and celebrities like Scott Hamilton have come together with the girls to create a magical coalition.  She spoke of her dream of a building which could house the demand for all the programs and services that the girls loved.

My recent conversation with Ellen brought several profound things to light about philanthropy. Like most philanthropists, she has an emotional connection to figure skating. And she has a basic understanding of Jewish connection to community, even if she did not have a “traditional” childhood.  Ellen’s thinking about her capacity to give in this particular way was started by her daughter. As she told me,

Three years ago for her Bat Mitzvah, Gillian approached Sharon Cohen for skating opportunities. She was proficient enough to coach the kids after school, and now goes on her own for 1.5 hours after school. She began by just teaching them how to put on their skates. The skating teachers voted her for a volunteer award, and hundreds of people attended. The kids’ response to her made me want the program to continue to grow, and seeing those 5 & 6 year olds hugging her is so moving. Because figure skating in Harlem is also an academic program, we want to make sure we get girls onto the ice, into college, and out into the workforce. We are creating value in the community and making sure it can continue.

Ellen also taught me something intriguing to me about this capacity. She wrote to me in an email exchange: “I'm not sure that I have the capacity to give. (I am really questioning that of myself today.)” When I asked her about that doubt in our follow-up conversation, she  commented that at this time of year, the end of school, the benefit season, with the invitations piling in, there was a sense of being empty and depleted.  I suggested that there might be a kind of seasonality to giving, and that fallow periods are also incredibly important in that ebb and flow of how philanthropy works. We spoke also about the power of reflection. She told me, “Once my kids leave for camp, and we are at the beach, I begin to ask myself, ‘What can I do differently about my giving? What worked and what didn’t?’ I do a lot of reading, go to my computer, and think things through. I particularly think about how I can incorporate my family into my giving.”

How did Ellen choose her community, and how did that community choose her? She wrote to me, “I have always been a fan of figure skating. I was never an athlete as a child. However, I admired and followed figure skating on TV. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia and was the beneficiary of several scholarship programs over the years.”  While her family was not religious, she was sent to a yeshiva for her early education. She added,

I have always felt that people have a duty to give back. As far back as I can remember, giving back to the community has been something I strongly believe in. ...Perhaps it was from my early education at yeshiva. The Rabbis believed in…the importance, power and duty of tzedakah. The Jewish religion mandates numerous examples in the Torah of giving back to the community and there are many more examples in Jewish oral tradition passed down of charitable giving. While I didn't grow up religious, I think my traditional upbringing and my innate belief that all people are connected make it easier for me to give back on a daily basis.

And what of the transformative power of philanthropy?  Ellen wrote to me, “I don't know that I am ‘transformed’ by the giving. I know that I feel unspeakable ‘nachas’ when I see the FSH girls run and hug my daughter and thank her at the end of the year. I also am overjoyed when their parents thank me for the work that my daughter does. I guess at the end of the day, when I see our enrollment increasing year to year, I know that I am a small part of that. I also know that my work is not done because I wake up each day and feel that I still have more to give!” But when I suggested that transformation could take any number of forms, such as an increase in the sense of power, she responded,  “Yes. There is one thing. In the last few months, I have been working on the new building, and raising funds for that building where we will be able to house 500-600 girls. And as the pieces fall into place, I think, ‘Oh my Goodness. This actually can be done. It is actually possible!’ And it takes my breath away.” 

Let me close then, by thinking about these three questions in our own lives. Finding the capacity to give—especially for women—requires quiet, careful, reflection.  It requires the most difficult act of building our own self esteem, and telling a story about our lives that suggests that we do indeed have something to give. Let us never underestimate the contemplative, reflective prerequisite to philanthropy. The water-giver Miriam did it, as she watched by the river, hour upon hour, and waited for her brother to be taken up by a stranger.    Dona Gracia Nasi did it, many times over, as she reflected on how she would escape the laws of each kingdom that wanted her wealth, and how she sponsored the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Italian vernacular. And Ellen Lowey did it, as she thinks through every summer how she might make her giving more effective.

How do we choose our community and let it choose us? This might be easy for some seasons, and for Jewish givers in particular, where community matters so deeply.  But it is not always easy.  Miriam was separated and chose her people again, even after she sat for seven days apart from them when she was struck by leprosy. Dona Gracia Nasi hid her devotion to her community as a Marrano, but then reaffirmed it, bravely and proudly, in both Ferrara Italy and Constantinople, Turkey—in the dangerous times of the 16th century. In response, her community chose her by building new communities in various European cities, and even in Tiberias. And Ellen Lowey did it by following the wisdom of her daughter at her Bat Mitzvah, and the way in which the hearts of the Harlem skaters that opened to her also honored and involved her children.

And how are we transformed by our philanthropy? Let us think of the extraordinary firsts: Miriam the water giver, saying the first prayer by a woman recorded in the Hebrew Bible, as she sings by the sea. Dona Gracia Nasi, using her resources to organize an extraordinary, and perhaps first of its kind, act of Jewish civil disobedience in boycotting the port where 26 Marranos were burned. And Ellen Lowey, whose dream of a building for the Figure Skating in Harlem—an organization which is also the first of its kind—is far closer than she thought.

These women teach us that philanthropy should be the product of serious reflection; that it should be a reflection of our souls, and a soul that knows it has something extraordinary to give the world. They teach us that philanthropy should always build community and capacity, even as it also relieves suffering. They teach us that the transformative power of our giving should make us stop in our tracks, and marvel at the possibility which has been realized.

The well of water at the doors of the tent. The walls of Jaffa and Tiberius. The ice skating skill of a newly confident teenager in Harlem. All of these are the gifts of Jewish women philanthropists. What will your addition to this list be for our next generation? We are waiting, because we know it will take our breath away.