It happens every spring. Along with friends and “shulmates” from Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD, I spend a Sunday (or, sometimes, two) volunteering for a project called Sukkot in Spring. It’s organized by Yachad, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit that mobilizes skilled and unskilled volunteers, along with money and donated supplies and equipment, to fix up rundown homes in poor neighborhoods of the city. I’m also a small donor to Yachad.
Why? I can’t make a logical argument that spending time or money working with Yachad does as much good as possible. My time might be better spent advocating for affordable housing or a higher minimum wage, and donations go further where the needs are greatest, in the very poorest parts of the world.
I support Yachad — it’s a Hebrew word that means “together” – for personal reasons. The Sukkot in Spring work of hammering, painting or drilling (any task, really, so long as no skills are required) is enjoyble because it’s done alongside friends. Seeing the tangible progress is satisfying, more so than writing a check. What’s more, I know and like Yachad’s executive director, Audrey Lyon, as well as several people on the organization’s board. It feels good.
What are we to make of this kind of giving from the heart, which is clearly how most people give? This blog, after all, argues that the world would be a whole lot better place if we could tell the difference between high-impact nonprofits and those that are average or worse, and then direct more of our time and money to the best performers. I’m a believer in what’s called effective altruism.
What’s more, I react strongly—emotionally, even—to philanthropy that benefits the comfortable or even the well-to-do. David Geffen’s $100 million gift to Lincoln Center in New York rubbed me the wrong way, particularly because he insisted on getting naming rights in perpetuity to what is now known as Avery Fisher Hall in exchange for his generosity. (The Fisher family agreed to give up the naming rights in exchange for inducements, including $15 million, The Times reported.) I’m a Yale alum, but I jeered rather than cheered Steven Schwarzman, the billionaire CEO of private-equity find Blackstone when he gave $150 million to Yale to build a performing arts center for its already privileged students. (See For the love of God, rich people, stop giving Ivy League colleges money.) The tax-deductible nature of the gifts by Geffen and Schwarzmann will shift resources away from the federal and state governments, which spend at least some of their money to help the needy, to support patrons of Lincoln Center and Yale students. It’s redistribution in the wrong direction.
By contrast, Yachad serves the needy–not by global standards (where about a billion people live on $1.25 a day or less), but by US standards. Its support comes from mostly well-to-do Jews. Yachad is the Hebrew word for “together,” and most of its donors and volunteers come from the DC-area Jewish community.
It’s a small organization. Until this year, its budget was between $175,000 and $300,000 a year. That’s less than half of the median sales price of a home in Bethesda, MD, where Adat Shalom is based and where I live. With that, Yachad fixes up between 15 and 20 homes a year. Often the renovations are extensive. Typically, skilled tradespeople perform roofing, plumbing and electrical work before the volunteer crews from the synagogue arrive to do carpentry, plastering and painting.
“These are homes that have been passed on from generation to generation,” Audrey told me. “The owners are cash poor and they can’t keep up their homes.” Yachad selects the homeowners who will get help, and generally favors multi-generational families living in one home. We’ve also built ramps and renovated bathrooms to allow people with disabilities to remain in their homes.
One woman’s story
Here are excerpts from a before-and-after letter that a homeowner we’ll call Ms. E wrote last year to Audrey.
Our living conditions had become really bad. Mice and cockroaches had taken residence in our home. It was so frustrating when I would see a mouse come from the back of my stove running across my kitchen counter, and hearing my grandchildren cry out ‘Grandma a mouse just ran in our room.’ Then there was the daily ritual of removing the water-soaked towel from the bottom of my refrigerator because it leaked. I knew I needed professional help but I lacked the resources.
Early spring, my clothes dryer caught on fire. The garbage disposal broke and started leaking under the kitchen sink. Then the water heater started leaking. The kitchen light had a short and stopped working, and over a third of the electrical outlets were not working, some were exposed where you could see the wiring and the list of things wrong went on and on. There was not one room in my entire house that did not have a problem.
Ms. E., like all homeowners who are a part of the program, then attended 10 hours of classes on home maintenance and financial management. Professional contractors made repairs, and shared information on upkeep, and they were followed by the volunteers. Ms. E. writes:
Thank GOD miracles do happen…I just want everyone associated with your organization to know: No words can describe the joy you have brought to us just in time for the Christmas holidays…I just can’t stop thinking about how my prayers were answered and how my tears of sadness were turned into tears of joy.
There were two interesting developments this year at Yachad. First, an organization called the National Fair Housing Alliance, which works to eliminate housing discrimination, gave a $250,000 grant to Yachad, substantially expanding its capacity. The money came out of the settlement proceeds of a suit filed by NFHA against Wells Fargo, which was accused of neglecting foreclosed homes in predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods across the US. That’s redistribution in the right direction.
Second, volunteers worked on a cluster of homes in a DC neighborhood called Skyland for this year’s Sukkot in Spring project (Sukkot is a joyous Jewish holiday, during which some celebrations take place in temporary shelters, a reminder of the time when Jews were without homes.) The homes were built about 15 years ago by Habitat for Humanity, and they were in awful shape. “The quality of the construction that we found was troubling,” Audrey told me. Dishwashers and garbage disposals were incorrectly installed, causing water to back up, and bathtubs lacked the proper drywall backing, causing water to leak into rooms below.” Yachad reached out to the DC office of Habitat, to see if the group would be willing to pay for some repairs, but she was told they had no money budgeted. I emailed Susanne Slater, the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Washington DC, to ask about this, and got no reply.
Which, it must be said, is a warning about giving from the heart. Mrs. E’s letter, above, is touching, but anecdotes are not evidence. Still, I’m comfortable supporting Yachad because I’ve seen what the organization can do. That said, I intend to steer most of my giving in the future to nonprofits working in places where it will do the most good–the poorest places in the world.
But it feels right to help people living just a few miles from the tony suburbs of Washington. Those of us who volunteer are reminded of how fortunate we are. Teenagers who show up, and they do, gain some perspective on their problems. Yachad is not transforming the world but it making important connections, breaking down boundaries and enabling us to perform “gemilut hasadim,” or acts of kindness. Those benefits are hard to measure, but they are real.