Visit the Web site, /rabbizevit/index.asp, for the insightful writings of Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit and information about his best-selling Alban book, Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities. A teacher, performer, writer, and spiritual leader, Zevit is director of outreach and community development for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Zevit talked with Alban about Offerings of the Heart and what the Jewish tradition has to say about the values behind giving within faith communities.

Q: What prompted you to write Offerings of the Heart? 

A: I had been working with congregations on learning how to see money as a spiritual tool for doing sacred work since the late 1990s, inspired by some of the wonderful work Jeffery Dekro and Rabbi Mordechai Liebling have been doing in this area. At the time I was leading training workshops and had developed best-practice resources for congregations, primarily from and for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. After writing a couple of articles and after a second round of national workshops on the topic, I was approached by the Alban Institute to write a book from a perspective based on Jewish values. This project brought together all of our commitment to the issue of money and values in faith communities, and Offerings of the Heart was born.

Q: How is the book different from other books on faith and giving? 

A: A major element is the comprehensive overview of Jewish text and tradition, which represent thousands of years of experience in the areas of faith, religious practice, and giving in a Jewish communal context. At the same time, the broader systems approach coupled with values-based decision making and numerous contemporary best practices make the book both unique and accessible to all faith communities.

Q: Why is it often difficult for congregations to discuss money? 

A: Confusion or tension can exist between private financial practices and faith-based congregational practices and between religious values and traditions and the business aspects of running a congregation or organization. Our contemporary world does not ask us to put our financial practices through a religious audit to see how our actions line up with living a godly life. Simply attending synagogue, mosque, church, or meeting place does not, in and of itself, heal this divide. We must also consider what spiritual insights might guide and determine our choices within the sanctuary and how the prayers and policies of our congregations contribute to us all living lives b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God.

Conversations about money in a communal setting can be challenging because issues of class and money are tied to issues of self-worth, personal values, and individual choices. We may have discomfort or even shame at having too much, too little, or not enough. Envy, competition, and insecurity can all surface when we talk about financial issues. The intensity of discussion, opinion, and emotion can intensify when attached to conversations about religion and religious and ethnic identity, especially when there has been little in the way of education and dialogue about money and religious life.

Through study, effective listening, and open discussion of our attitudes and expectations, however, we can turn a potentially challenging subject into a profound opportunity for building relationships and community.

Q: How might a discussion of Jewish values such as nadiv lev (generosity) also benefit Christian congregations and other faith traditions? 

A: Christian communities have a wonderful history of tithing and free-will giving. At the same time, many churches I work with and clergy I speak with find their congregants are struggling, as are their congregations, to keep up past levels. Nadiv lev is only one of many approaches to organizing money for sacred purposes in fulfilling the mission of the congregation. The book looks at the many varied approaches that 3,000 years of the experience of the Jewish people have to offer. There is also beneficial material around budgeting, planning, fund-raising, capital campaigns, and more.

Q: How can a brit, or congregational covenant, guide communal decisions about how to allocate resources? 

A: A “fee for service” mentality or a “drive-thru religious experience” undermines the long-term health of any community and turns commitment to a faith community into part of one-stop shopping for individual needs. While individual self-realization and support is key to any community’s mission, the idea of brit implies not only goods and services but also responsibilities and obligations (even if voluntary) as part of a fee or dues for membership. This idea also challenges the leadership of a congregation, including clergy, to provide for the sustenance of the spiritual life of its members-even including physical, emotional, and intellectual growth and well-being. A covenant is a two-way bond and helps in balancing difficult choices around allocation of resources for the sake of individual households, the long-term plan of the community, and the larger world in which we live out our faith paths.

Q: How much is a half-shekel in today’s dollars? In other words, how should we approach religious texts when talking about money and values in faith communities? 

A: A half-shekel is more symbolic than substantive on a financial level (even adjusted for inflation!). It breaks the psycho-spiritual barrier of givers and non-givers. This minimal gift in its historic setting was connected to an account taking of membership in the Israelite community, part of capital expenses and maintenance of the Tabernacle, and was motivated by a sense of “atonement of the soul.” Today it symbolizes an egalitarian commitment to a small sum that is given by each household as a tangible form of commitment to the covenant of community.


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Featured Resources 

AL271_SMOfferings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities by Shawn Israel Zevit

Setting aside the financial/spiritual split with which many congregational leaders operate, Rabbi Shawn Zevit brings the depth and breadth of Jewish teachings on money and the spiritual life to all faith communities. The book provides texts and tools to help clergy, staff, and lay leaders of congregations of any faith approach financial and other resources as ways to build and maintain whole and holy lives in a communal setting.

AL211_SM Creating Congregations of Generous People by Michael Durall

Stewardship consultant Michael Durall argues that annual pledge drives inadvertently perpetuate low-level and
same-level giving in congregations. Written with the voice of experience, this book will help clergy and lay leaders initiate and sustain effective stewardship programs. Durall believes that asking for money eventually becomes routine, even tedious, but creating a congregation of generous people becomes ever more meaningful with passing time.