The Jewish Nomad: Where does charity begin for a millennial experiencing economic anxiety?

Ilana’s view while writing this piece—from the Quebec countryside.

I’m getting increasingly terrified about the cost of living. 

I realize that this is a very millennial statement to make—given how previous generations saw this happen before—but it’s true.

Let’s forget for a second about the fact that I make a below average income, due to being an artiste. An average salary can no longer buy you a house.

Working your way up the ladder was an actual possibility, as many of our grandparents went from blue-collar jobs and tiny apartments on the poor side of town, to owning these companies themselves. 

And after all the jokes about millennials wasting too much money on avocado toast and overpriced lattes, the current state of inflation isn’t so funny. 

So, what does that mean for the state of Jewish philanthropy? We recently discussed it on an episode of Bonjour Chai

Now, given the challenges of my generation, you can probably envision a future that’s bleak.

If I made a higher salary, donations would probably be in the cards. But that’s not a possibility right now—so it’s hard to know for sure. (If I make it big as an actor one day, let’s chat.)

I’d like to think my peers who’ve reached a higher salary level are giving tzedakah. I know some who already do, and I think that’s admirable during these uncertain times, when a box of breakfast cereal costs $5.99.

When I brought up this topic with my partner, he told me about an ethical argument made by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. 

The essential analogy is to imagine you bought yourself a pair of expensive shoes you were eyeing for weeks—then you walked out of the store and found someone drowning. You’d have to make a choice: Get into the water and ruin the shoes… or walk away.

Basically, each time you buy a pair of shoes, you’re diverting money that could’ve been used to save someone’s life, which is no more complicated than clicking to donate to impoverished kids.

But does one have a moral obligation to donate everything beyond what’s necessary to survive?

When he presented the case to me, I said I’d definitely ruin the shoes. (But the question is moot when I can’t afford fancy shoes.)

My family is quite involved in Jewish causes, with a history of leadership and building community. As a kid, I always put coins in tzedakah boxes. It was what I was raised to do.

My co-host Avi Finegold pointed out on the podcast that the more religious the Jewish community, the more you’ll find active donors. Even if those same folks are just scraping by themselves. It’s an attitude I can’t help but admire.

One of the guests we spoke to was Danielle Segal, head of programming for Honeycomb, an American organization educating young Jews on philanthropy. She explained that the notion of “anything counts” is real! 

In other words, if you only have five bucks, it does make a difference where you choose to donate your moolah. 

I have to admit that I’ve been prone to assuming the opposite. A charity soliciting donations on the street usually gets a polite brush-off from me. But if I’m in a more honest mood—or feeling guilty—I’ll tell them I’m a struggling artist who supports their cause.

On the podcast we also learned some of the most popular causes for young donors are environmentalism and mental health.

And as a mental health advocate, I’ve raised money for the latter by putting on works of theatre, giving back through my art. The idea was to inspire those who could afford it more to help out. With my show Part I, on the subject of mental health, we raised money for Expressions Lasalle, an arts therapy centre in Laval, Quebec, which offers free services to its members. 

(You can find a younger me talking about it to The CJN.)

Maybe that’s the missing link. What actually interests young Jews? And how can we adapt our community focus to include those interests.

C’mon hive mind, I challenge you to think on this, and send me your thoughts.

In the meantime, I’ll jot down some of my own ideas, which I can activate when I book my next Hollywood feature. Stay tuned…

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai