EA for Jews - Proposal and Request for Comment

by BenSchifman4 min read28th Mar 202121 comments

55

Community ProjectsEA GroupsCommunity
Frontpage

Overview

Creating an online community for Jews--interpreted most broadly to include religious as well as secular/cultural Jews--could help grow the larger effective altruism (EA) community, leading to greater donations to effective charities and a greater dissemination of EA ideas and principles.   

Therefore I propose to create a website modeled on EA for Christians (as well as a linked facebook page and group, and potentially an email newsletter).[1]  The goal of these resources would be to introduce EA principles and resources to Jews and to build a community or “ecosystem” for Jews involved in EA, ultimately leading to more people donating more to effective charities, focusing careers on EA cause areas, and/or sharing EA ideas with others.  If you have feedback or would like to get involved in any way, big or small, please fill out this form 

Background

Judaism, justice, and charitable giving 

Like many other religions, Judaism calls on its adherents to help others, including by pursuing justice (tzedakah) and giving to the poor.  See Deuteronomy 16:20; see generally Sefaria, Tzedakah collection.  Biblical sources direct Jews to give 10% percent of their earnings to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26:12), and an additional percentage of their income annually (Leviticus 19:9­-10).   Rabbinic commentary teaches that most should give even more than 10% and has emphasized the commandment to pursue tzedakah (which encompasses charitable giving) is "equal to all the other commandments combined" Bava Bathra 9b; see also Ket. 50a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor

Another theme present throughout the Hebrew Bible and commentary is that Jews should be cognizant of the oppressed, and as Jews were once oppressed as slaves in Egypt.  Deuteronomy 5:15.  And in modern Judaism, the concept of tzedakah is often coupled with the concept of Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” which is interpreted to mean the pursuit of social justice and working to “make the world more just, peaceful,  tolerant, and equal, through acts of charity, kindness, and  political action.”  Andrés Spokoiny, Tikkun Olam: A Defense and a Critique (October 17, 2018).  Distinct from these largely religious motivations, non-religious or cultural Jews (see generally Pew 2013) also have a long history of being active in social justice movements and philanthropy.  These various strands have inspired many Jews throughout history to give to charity and to pursue social justice. See, e.g., An Introduction to Jewish Philanthropy; Jewish Virtual Library: Charity (Tzedakah): Charity Throughout Jewish History

Jewish philanthropy today 

Donors both small and large within the broader Jewish community today have a large philanthropic impact, donating, as best I can tell, at least $9 billion a year to charity, likely considerably more. See The Conversation, American Jews and charitable giving: An enduring tradition (estimating $9 billion a year in 2014); Inside Philanthropy, Here Are the Top 13 Philanthropists Who Support the Jewish Community (February 5, 2020); Forward Magazine, 26 Billion Bucks: The Jewish Charity Industry Uncovered (March 24, 2014).  In fiscal year 2019 the Jewish Communal Fund alone recommended grants totaling $456 million to over 9,500 nonprofits.  The wikipedia pages for Jewish philanthropists and Jewish American philanthropists lists hundreds of individuals. Some of these individuals have taken the Giving Pledge, committing to giving away half of their wealth.  See Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Zuckerberg among nine new Jewish individuals and families to take the Giving Pledge (December 10, 2010).

Jews’ contributions to EA

Jews[2] have also made and continue to make substantial contributions to the EA community. The intellectual underpinnings of EA are typically traced to Peter Singer, who is ethnically Jewish and whose grandparents died in the Holocaust.  The site LessWrong, founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky, was also an important contributor to the early development of EA.  GiveWell’s founders Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld are also ethnically Jewish. See this Quora post.  And Good Ventures, founded by Dustin Moskowitz and Cari Tuna, contributes up to 30% of total EA funds, according to one assessment.  

There is currently no EA community for Jews (qua Jews) 

Despite the involvement of many Jewish people in EA, and in philanthropy and social justice broadly, there is not a specific online community for Jews interested in EA, nor are there many resources directed at Jews that are interested in EA, or who are interested in effective giving but have not heard of EA. Several posts on the EA forum have directly or indirectly called for the creation of a EA for Jews organization. See, e.g., this or this EA forum post.

Proposal and Goals

As discussed in the overview, I propose to start a website, modeled on EA for Christians, and accompanying facebook group and possibly a newsletter.  Specific goals include of the site and group would be to:

  • Introduce EA principles to Jews;
  • Inform giving decisions (both how much and where to give) by introducing EA principles and directing readers to EA-aligned charity evaluators and other resources (GiveWell, ACE, EA Funds, Giving What We Can);
  • Inform career choice decisions by directing readers to EA-aligned career resources (80k, Probably Good);
  • Create a community (and “ecosystem”) for Jews already involved or curious about EA, providing resources and discussions of EA principles and Jewish teachings.

Next Steps

Short term

  • Seek volunteers (this means you!) to initially create, solicit, and/or edit content for the site including blog posts with first-person personal stories (like this).
    • Content (specifically the blog posts) should seek to appeal to as diverse a group of Jews as possible including:
      • Religious Jews of all denominations
      • Cultural or secular Jews (the majority of American Jews, see Pew 2013)
      • Jews by choice 
      • Jews of different ethnic backgrounds
        • Including sephardic, misrahi, ashkenazi, etc, etc 
      • Etc
  • Seek funding (and/or volunteer(s)) to design the site
  • Seek funding to host the site 
  • Publish the site
  • Publicize the site 

Medium term

  • Identify a core team of volunteers to: 
    • (1) continue to create, solicit and/or edit content for the website, facebook page and newsletter going forward;
    • (2) grow the reach and awareness of the site and community by hosting events;
    • (3) grow the awareness of the site by participating in events organized by others (e.g., speaking at Jewish, interfaith and/or EA events, conferences, etc);  
    • (4) connecting with other groups, 
    • (5) [Your ideas here!] 
  • Seek a “board” or “trustees” that would advise the volunteers and help steer the group. See EA for Christians’ advisors.
  • Develop metrics to track the impact of the site, including:
    • Evaluating site traffic to see how many people are visiting the site, spending time there, and clicking through to other EA resources 
    • Evaluate SEO metrics to see if people who search for, e.g., “effective tzedakah” or “where Jews should donate” or something are directed to the site
    • [when there are enough users of the site] soliciting feedback through a survey, looking at SEO metrics.  

Long term

  • Possibly register as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in order to accept donations to pay additional staff/organizers, if needed. 
  • Possibly seek funding to pay a full or part-time organizer to assist with the tasks the volunteers are doing above.  
  • Advertise (possibly though adwords, see this or this post) to grow the group.  

Please get involved and/or provide feedback!

If you would like to get involved in any way, big or small, please fill out this form.  And I welcome any and all constructive criticism and other feedback. Feel free to comment directly on this document with feedback, or fill out this form to provide anonymous feedback.  I’m particularly interested in ways this proposal could go wrong or turn out not to be a good idea.  I’m also not sure “EA for Jews” is the best brand. “Effective Tzedakah” or “Jews in EA” are other proposals folks have suggested but I’m open to any other thoughts.  Thank you! 

***

[1] See https://www.facebook.com/groups/eaforchristians. A similar group exists for Muslims as well: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1731235183840615, and for Buddhists: https://www.facebook.com/groups/buddhists.in.ea/ 

[2] It is unknown to me to what extent the people I discuss in this section self-identify as Jews, particularly as Judaism can mean either a religion, ethnicity, or culture (or combination thereof).  However based on public sources I am comfortable identifying them as Jews for purposes of this post.  

55

21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:30 AM
New Comment

FWIW, the three mentioned names to me point to different focuses:

EA for Jews: Seems to imply a customized form of EA more tailored to Jews; makes me think of donation opportunities in Israel, or Jewish giving groups, or something.

Effective Tzedakah: Feels all about affecting Jew's donations to be more effective and less about things like research or careers. It does seem, of these three, the most accessible to non-EA Jews you may hope to attract, but possibly not beyond donations.

 Jews in EA: Points to being an affinity group of EAs who want to get together with other Jews. Doesn't seem like a recruitment organization, but (mainly) a group for those already in EA.

I do think any of these names can be used for the entire multitude of goals this initiative may have, but the focus and first-interpretation of the name seems likely to be understood quite differently.

Thanks Josh, that is helpful!  One of the things I'm hoping someone who is better at branding than me can do is come up with a name for this potential group that would encompass primarily the "effective tzedakah" and "Jews in EA" focuses you list above.   (With the caveat that the tzedakah concept above is a bit narrower than I understand it -- I think tzedakah has become synonymous with charitable donations, but more accurately encompasses social justice broadly, of which donations are a part).  Something like "Effective Altruism and Judaism" is broad enough so maybe that would be preferable.  Let me know if you have any other potential names or other thoughts! 

Agree with Josh's take on Jews in EA and Effective Tzedakah (though I'd agree strictly speaking  the concept of tzedakah is at least broader than charitable giving).  I think "Effective Altruism and Judaism" (maybe EAJ?) is my favorite! That said, RE "EA for Jews" - any chance you can ask the folks at EA for Christians how they feel the name has worked out for them? 

I'd be happy to chat about it if helpful,  I helped found EA for Christians and have spent a bunch of time thinking about different word choices for our name, though you may already be in contact with members of our team.

Our Facebook group is called 'Christians and Effective Altruism' I think this wording allows Christians who don't yet feel comfortable with fully aligning with EA to join and participate which has been useful for us in terms of outreach.

Then in terms of the name for our actual org, I see three options (i) 'EA for Christians', (ii) 'Christians in EA' and (iii) some wording like our Facebook group name using 'and'.

Whilst (ii) feels the cleanest, as noted above it reads as an affinity group without the outreach edge which is a core part of our org. (iii) is also inoffensive but sounds like it lacks a mission which I think can also be unattractive when doing outreach. I like the fact that in (i) Christianity is spotlighted, which works with the way Christians are encouraged to think about their Christian identity being the most central to them. The downside is that it risks sounding like it's EA being used in support of Christians, which obviously isn't our goal, rather the use of for is meant to imply that EA provides an invaluable toolkit to aid Christians in their God-given mission to serve others.

Thank you Alex and Jeremy ! This input is very helpful, and has informed some discussions I've recently had with potential volunteers about what we should call the group.  

Alex, I've talked with Caleb from your organization, but I think it would be great to bounce some ideas off of you as well re: this branding issue which it seems you've given a lot of thought to.  For now I'm still going through the list of folks interested in volunteering but once we get a bit further along I'll send you a message!

With the obvious caveat that Israel is not synonymous with Judaism, it may be worth noting that Israel has a (AFAICT) active and successful EA (or EA-adjacent) ecosystem, especially in the space of animal advocacy and meat alternatives.

Thanks Cullen!  I've talked to a few folks that are part of the EA Israel group and they are interested in helping out.  I think this proposed project would be complementary in some ways, but largely different from their group.  

Yasher Koach - I'm a fan! As an Orthodox Jew myself I've been collecting some EA-relevant halakhic/biblical texts on this "source sheet" to eventually get back around to. It needs a lot of fleshing out, not to mention much clearer structure; perhaps this project will be the kick in the pants I've needed. 

I'm personally still grappling with the same sorts of tension referenced in Raffi's post (linked above). Though I think a number of halakhic texts align quite neatly with an EA  direction, a very well-known / internalized notion in the Orthodox Jewish world is the concept of aniyei ircha kodmim - the poor of your city come first i.e., proximity matters, which of course is... less well-aligned to EA thinking.

Given that,  I think there's particular value in shining a light on some of those halakhic sources which emphasize the relative weighting of need and/or imperative to save lives to help foster more critical thinking among Orthodox Jews with regard to their giving, careers, volunteering etc. Hopeful that can be folded into this project!

Thanks Jeremy!  Great minds think alike -- I've got a collection of sources I've been compiling on this topic as well and we've hit a lot of the same ones.  Luckily there are plenty of arguments on all sides of just about every issue addressed in the talmud;  so no doubt the concept of helping your community first is present, so too is the preeminent importance of saving a life over other values (pikuach nefesh‎); see also Mishneh Sanhedrin 4, etc,. and other concepts that align more with EA principles.   Anyway -- I'll shoot you a message and I'd love to discuss further!   

Hi Jeremy - I am going through a similar process currently and would love to connect and see if there may be ways to combine efforts / share learnings. I wrote more about my project here.

According to this video, Orthodox Jews make up >15% of live altruistic kidney donors in the US, despite making up only 0.2% of the US population. The video directs to Renewal, an organization for kidney donations, and they have a page of endorsements by Rabbis.

In Israel, apparently the faith-based community organization Matnat Chaim has had a lot of success. Might be worth looking into what worked for them. See:

  1. https://www.israel21c.org/faith-based-nonprofit-triples-altruistic-kidney-donations/
  2. https://bmcnephrol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12882-018-0923-4

I strongly suspect the kidney donations in question are mostly to other Jews, and maybe mostly to other Orthodox Jews. The organization mentioned in the video is Renewal, which "helps facilitate kidney matches within the Jewish community."

And with regard to Matnat Chaim: "In a report aired on Israel’s Channel 2 Sunday, the Health Ministry said the policy leads to possible discrimination, noting that at least half of Matnat Chaim’s donors request Jewish recipients."

In general, Orthodox Jews are very altruistic towards other Jews, and especially other Orthodox Jews. However, the impression I have is that they tend to be tribalistic and unlikely to favor expanded moral circles. So I don't think they're a good target audience for EA.

(I grew up Orthodox Jewish, but I'm now an atheist.)

Hmm, that's too bad. On Matnat Chaim, another way of looking at it that up to half of the donors did not request Jewish recipients, but maybe those donors were less likely to be Orthodox Jews specifically, though. And even if few donors did not request someone of the same religion or ethnicity, there could till be something to learn from Matnat Chaim's approach.

This article paints an even more pessimistic picture at the time it was written: almost all of the donors (309 of 311) were Orthodox Jews, and all of them requested Jewish recipients. However, this was earlier in the organization's history, and maybe things have changed since then.

I suppose there are also some particularities about Orthodox Judaism and the permissibility of using organs from people who are dying but whose hearts have not yet stopped which is apparently how most donations happen (the heart is kept artificially beating), and so live organ donation might be the only practical permissible option for Orthodox Jews to donate and receive kidneys. This might partially explain why they are so much more likely to donate kidneys than average.

Thanks Avi -- I think you are right, from what  I can tell the kidney donations discussed in those sources are largely  within their community. (Although I wonder if they end up triggering any "swap chains"?)  

I appreciate your perspective on the orthodox community, too, which I have relatively little personal experience with (one side of my family is orthodox but I grew up loosely reform).  While in general I agree orthodox Jews are probably not  the group most likely to get into EA,  I figure there's still value in offering some information for any EA-curious orthodox folks out there (though I don't think that will be much of a focus of this site if I end up setting it up).  

Wow I didn't realize orthodox folks were giving so many kidneys - that is fascinating.  Thanks for sharing Michael!  I will look into those sources. 

Great to have another person putting effort into making the world more altruistic and more effective!

I like the idea.

In terms of comment, I have two thoughts, both of which I think you have already thought about above. Firstly I think when creating a new organisation, you have to make sure you are creating something for which (1) there is a need and (2) there is not somebody already trying to meet that need already. At EA for Christians, we’ve found a need for two things: (a) thinking around how compatible EA is with Christianity (tl;dr it very much is), and (b) outreach to Christians who are not yet EAs. We make sure we don’t redo things the community already does.

Secondly, make sure the organisation is run by the right people. At first this normally means people who have volunteer time, but as it builds make sure you build the appropriate skills and experience. Typically the person who has an idea and the most suitable person to be CEO are not the same person, but most EA organisations are run by the founder.

Wishing you all the best with the venture!

Thanks Grayden! Good points - I talked to Caleb from EA for Christians as well and he had similar suggestions.  I'm fairly confident (1) and (2) are met,  but I'll see what the response to this post and other outreach efforts are.  If I do set up this group it'll be with broadly the same aims you identified for EA for Christians - namely, outreach, community building, etc.

As far as making sure the organization is run by the right folks, that's certainly something on my mind as well.  At this juncture I'm just looking to cast as wide a net as possible. My hope is that over time we attract a broad enough group of people that we can pick/identify people suited for specific roles, including a "CEO" or board chair etc - and no need for that to be me!  Thanks again for the helpful comments.  Cheers!

I suspect the kind of outreach we'd want to do for secular Jews is basically the kind of outreach EA already does or whatever would work best for atheists and secular people generally (or keeping in mind average differences in political views if any, but then it seems it might be better to divide along political lines), and messages targeted towards religious Jews that don't appeal to the average atheist would not appeal to the average secular Jew, either, and may even be off-putting. Or, maybe those who identify most with Jewish culture, regardless of religious views, would still find religious messaging appealing, so they'll self-select?

So, I'm not sure if it would be good to have a group with some explicitly religious public messaging trying to do outreach to secular Jews. It might be better to just have a group with religious messaging focusing on religious groups, and/or a group without religious messaging focusing on (cultural or ethnic) Jews more generally (or just secular Jews, if there will be one for religious Jews).

I don't say this with much familiarity with these communities, though.

Yes, these are good points -- I agree that basically, different groups will be more or less responsive to different types of outreach/messages.  One of the goals of the site would be to have a really diverse set of blog posts and other content highlighting people who came to EA through different paths -- some through a religious path, some not.  (Some in between?)   I suppose there is some risk that religious content on the site could "turn off" secular or cultural Jews who visit the site, but I think that's unlikely, so long as there is content that speaks to them as well on there.  Worth thinking about this downside risk carefully though! 

If necessary, it might be good to frame the arguments from religious texts as connecting with traditional Jewish thought, not in a way that demands a belief (or lack of belief) in the literal accuracy of the Talmud—basically what (my understanding of) Reform Judaism does. It might be good to intersperse religious arguments with secular arguments as well.

Absolutely -- this is my intention in both regards.  First, in my ideal vision the website would have content that appeals to both religious as well as non-religious Jews.  So in addition to highlighting or discussing traditional commentary on, say, tzedakah from the tanakh and talmud I'd also like to highlight Jewish thought broadly related to social justice throughout history.  Luckily there is thousands of years worth of content to mine in both regards!