General wisdom suggests that you should begin a sermon with some kind of interesting or engaging story—something that puts the congregation at ease so that everyone present enjoys themselves so much that they don’t even notice when you somehow transition from your life-changing experience on a jetski to the theological implications of an anthropomorphized God.
It is with this homiletical strategy in mind that I would like to start today’s sermon with one of the most engaging topics available to me—namely: the thesis that I wrote while in Rabbinical School. Now, before you scoff, I should explain that while some of my rabbinical classmates and colleagues wrote about subjects that could seem uninteresting or even irrelevant to contemporary Jewish families, my thesis was an investigation of something undeniably relevant to all humankind. You see, as a fifth year rabbinical student, I wrote over one hundred pages about—get ready for it—The Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Hold on Rabbi. That topic is too fun and far too entertaining to be the subject of a High Holy Day sermon. But, I can assure you that while many would consider the one hundred year history of The Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia to be lighthearted enough to be appropriate for even the most casual of conversations, elements of this story are serious enough for us to address them on this holy day of Rosh Hashanah.
In all seriousness, the Jewish Foster Home was a fascinating subject to study and write about. Tracing the organization from its inception in 1855 until it was dissolved in the middle of the 20th century was a task that I thoroughly enjoyed and could talk about—at length—with even the slightest provocation.
But, even though I never need a reason to think about the JFH, there is actually a reason that I have been spending a lot of time considering it recently. A little while ago, I read about a scholar named Paul Bloom, who is a professor of psychology at Yale. Bloom’s most recent book is called, Against Empathy. Appropriately enough, Bloom’s premise is that we rely too much on the concept of empathy, and that this reliance is actually not the healthiest or the most effective way of repairing the world. My initial reaction to reading about Bloom’s argument was disappointment. I thought to myself, “Come on. Why would someone argue for less empathy in the world when, in many ways, the last year or two could be defined by a seeming epidemic of people not caring about other people’s experiences, thoughts, or identities?”
I was intrigued enough to read more about Bloom’s work and listen to multiple interviews that he’s given, and eventually, I arrived at a better understanding of his argument. Bloom distinguishes between empathy, which he defines as feeling other people’s pain and then using your experience of that pain as your primary motivation to act, and compassion which he explains is the process of caring for other people, respecting them, and then working to assist them but without feeling echos of their pain yourself. Bloom argues that where empathy is exhausting, compassion is energizing and actually helps us to act with more kindness.
In a presentation to The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Bloom argues that, “…empathy really is like a spotlight. It zooms you in on people, and when it zooms you in on people, you’re more likely to help them…But like a spotlight, we could point it in the wrong places, so it’s subject to bias and myopia, and like a spotlight, it’s insensitive to numbers. It’s innumerate and ultimately irrational.”
Later in his presentation, Bloom says that critics of his argument often say that even if they concede his point that we are able to do more good for more people by using rational thinking rather than empathy, in their opinion, empathy is the only thing that will actually get people to start work of helping people.
Bloom responds to this critique by arguing that, “…there are alternatives to empathy. Our moral psychologies are very rich with all sorts of moral motivations—there’s guilt, there’s shame, there are concerns about our reputation, there’s an honest desire for it to be a better world.”
To my mind, when Bloom lists potential motivations that exists outside of empathy, he forgets an important one—namely, a religious ethical system. The Jewish tradition does not rely on individual Jew’s desire to create a better world. Instead, it mandates that every Jew participate in making a better world. And, that’s where we connect back to the Jewish Foster Home.
Created in 1855 by a group of women who were among the most well established and wealthiest families in the city, the JFH aimed to create a safe place for vulnerable Jewish children whose families were unable to care for them for a wide variety of reasons. Up until the middle of the 19th century, children in these circumstances would have been sent to a local almshouse, a far from ideal space that housed destitute men, women, and children. Over the 95 years of its existence, the JFH sheltered hundreds and hundreds of Jewish children. It is an impressive record.
I wanted to share this brief background with you today because, after reading Bloom’s argument about empathy, I stopped to consider what role empathy played in the founding of the Foster Home and in the years of subsequent support. And, I was surprised to realize that while empathy was always apparent, it was never the most powerful reason that the Home’s supporters donated their time and money to the organization.
If it wasn’t their empathy for the plight of the families and the children that they served, what was the primary motivation of these wealthy patrons? The answer to that question is simple. They were motivated by their religious duty. They were motivated by their sense that they were commanded to intervene.
The idea of religious duty or having been commanded to do something is unfashionable in today’s world. Article after article is written about how the latest generations to reach adulthood are interacting with not-for-profits in ways entirely different than previous generations did. Our primary motivation to participate or donate is often empathy—a phenomenon which is, of course, heightened by the relative ease with which we can access information and—even more importantly—photos of a specific person or cause in need of support.
I know that this often rings true with the way I donate. When Hurricane Harvey began its attack on Houston and the surrounding areas, I watched the news feeling shocked and overwhelmed by the suffering that came along with the floodwaters. My initial response was to watch, absorbing information about the situation in a generalized way. Then, I saw a photo of a man holding his large dog braced on his shoulders as he struggled through water that was easily up to his waist. I looked from that photo to the dog sleeping in my lap, and I was overcome with the need to do something because I could empathize with what that man must have been feeling at that moment. And so, I moved my sleeping dog, got out my credit card and donated to the SPCA of Texas. Once I got started, I went on to donate to other agencies focused on helping a more generalized cross section of impacted people, but it was the photo of the animal lover that got me moving in the first place. My donating to the SPCA wasn’t wrong, but I have wondered since if by following the spotlight of empathy, I missed the chance to help a larger number of families.
If we consider Bloom’s argument, we might conclude that while there is nothing wrong with empathy, when it becomes our primary reason for action, it limits the amount of good that we can do in the world.
This line of thinking brings me back to the Jewish Foster Home, and leads me to introduce to you a remarkable woman named Rebecca Gratz. Rebecca was born in 1781 and belonged to the highest echelons of Philadelphia society. She was well known in the community for her philanthropic work, and as a woman in her 70’s, she took on task of pushing the city’s large Jewish community into addressing the needs of the most vulnerable Jewish children. Her first public call to action is striking in that it demonstrates exactly how different her intended audience was from today’s Jewish communities.
In 1850, a letter signed by an anonymous, “Daughter of Israel,” (who was really Rebecca Gratz) appeared in an important, national Jewish newspaper. This letter was a forceful call to action based almost completely on Gratz’s assumption—which was absolutely correct—that her community would respond to a reminder of their religious obligations. Here is an excerpt that best demonstrates her approach:
Ye who have abundance of God’s gifts, ye who are clad in purple, and dwell in palaces, remember that to “open wide thy hand to thy needy brother” is the command of that God who hath so blessed your store; remember that “the poor shall never cease out of thy land” demands, that from your abundance[,] provision shall be made for them; remember that your children, or your children’s children, may be among the poor of the land who will seek the aid and require the sympathy of their generation; but, above all, forget not that your deeds, and not your wealth, will[,] on the day of judgment[,] lead for you to your God.
It is clear that Gratz understood the power of empathy because she called on the emotional responses of her readers when she reminded them that their children might need the aid of those who could provide it. But, Gratz concluded, the most important reason to make provisions for those in need is that God commanded the Jewish community to do so.
For Gratz, empathy and duty were not opposite ends of a spectrum. Instead, in both her call to action and over the course of the 95 years that the organization she helped to found served her city, empathy and duty worked as complementary reasons for the larger community to get involved.
Philadelphia’s Jewish community supported the Foster Home for almost a century. During that time, social and philanthropic heavy weights from many different congregations donated both their time and their money to this cause. By the end of the 19th century, the majority of Jewish children most in need of care belonged to families that had recently immigrated to this country and were struggling financially. The patrons of the Foster Home belonged to some of the most well established families in the city. As an example, the first directress of the Home was Mrs. Anna Allen, the widow of the president of a large Philadelphia congregation, the daughter of a soldier who fought as a patriot in the Revolutionary War, and the granddaughter of a man who immigrated to the colony of New York in 1697.
There is no doubt that some of these third and fourth generation Americans were moved by the struggles of the families of recent immigrants. Equally clear, however, is that other contingents of the city’s wealthy Jewish community had no interest at all in feeling the pain of the people they helped and wanted only for the recent immigrants to fit into the already established Jewish social structure.
What I think is so important is that no matter which group a patron belonged to, empathy or the lack-there-of was not enough of a reason to support or turn away from the cause. They gave of themselves because it was their duty to do so. They gave of themselves because the ethical teachings of their Jewish faith demanded that they do so.
Now, I’m not saying that the Foster Home was a perfect organization or that we should follow every nuance of the path that its patrons took. I am also not saying that there was a time in the past that everyone was more generous and open-hearted than we are today, because I believe strongly that advocating for a return to a past where everything was wonderful discounts the hard-won wisdom that we’ve gained.
However, I do admire the way that these women and men looked beyond their own experience of the world and beyond even the stories to which they could most easily relate and then worked to create a reality that better aligned with their religious teachings and ethical goals. Their Jewish values brought them out of their comfortable homes and into the streets of Philadelphia where they worked to help Jewish families that were struggling. And while we can argue with some of the strategies that they used—after all we have more than one hundred and fifty more years of experience and knowledge than the JFH founders did&mdaswh;we should respect their commitment to bringing their Jewish values to life.
This year, the world will continue to be a broken place, as it has always been. We will be called upon to donate our time and our money to causes that seek to fix some aspect of that brokenness. I challenge us all to remember the Jewish Foster Home. I challenge us to support organizations that do important work and that bring the world closer to our ethical ideal. I challenge us to refuse to be limited to only supporting those with whom we can empathize. Instead, I challenge us to use smart thinking and ethical teachings to find organizations and efforts that help bring the world closer to wholeness and healing.
Relying on feelings which can change and even burn out makes the future of charitable work uncertain. Instead, let’s consider grounding our commitment to give back in our ethical convictions, in what the Jewish tradition tells us is moral and good.
In 1850, Rebecca Gratz wrote her letter calling for the creation of a Jewish Foster Home and then sent her message to the office of a national Jewish newspaper headquartered in Philadelphia. When the editor of the paper, Rabbi Isaac Leeser, published Rebecca’s letter, he included a lengthy editor’s note supporting her call to action. I’ll conclude with his final comments because they are as stirring today as they were one hundred and sixty-seven years ago.
Rabbi Leeser wrote:
Do the Israelites in America understand their duty? Do they feel their mission both as Jews and freemen? We trust they do; and hope, therefore, that these loose thoughts we have thrown out in response to our correspondent may not fall idly to the ground, but become fruitful in after years, if even not immediately. We close for the present.
And so, I close for the present as well. May it be a sweet year filled with good work.
Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Temple B’nai Chaim