The Jewish Effective Giving Blog

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Simple Steps Smaller Congregations Can Take to Save a Life

There are small changes a congregation—any congregation—can make on the margins that will result in a lot of human suffering prevented.

While I understand that joining our list of Life-Saving Congregations is a commitment that not every synagogue is ready to make, that shouldn’t deter anyone from participating in our broader effort and helping a whole lot of people in a very meaningful way this coming year.

I’ve met with many rabbis and leaders who were very enthusiastic about what we are trying to do but ended up not participating because they couldn’t commit, for different reasons, to the sum specified in our Life Saving Congregations pledge.

That’s very unfortunate, as these congregations could still do a massive amount of good together with us, especially over time.

It’s important to understand that the way the four charities that we support save lives is by preventing a lot of people (especially children) from getting ill with serious diseases. For instance, while distributing around 1,000 malaria nets will, on average, save a life, distributing “only” 200 nets would still protect around 360 people from malaria for about two years and prevent dozens of actual cases of this dangerous illness. It’s still profoundly worth doing!

More generally speaking, even if it takes a congregations two, or three, or four, or seven years to save a life, that’s still a human life saved (and so much additional disease and suffering prevented)!

This post was written to show how easy this can be and to give some simple, concrete steps that any congregation can take to start helping substantially more people right now.    

One Small, Informal Talk Could Do the Trick

I recently gave a poorly-attended virtual talk at a very small congregation, which wasn’t even signed up for the initiative. Five people showed up (six if you include the rabbi, whom I had met with earlier). The organiser apologized that so few congregation members could attend.

The following day, one of the people present made a donation to GiveWell (split between their four Top Charities) that was enough to save several lives and prevent many hundreds of people from falling ill.    

I believe that in every congregation there are many people who would be thrilled to know that they can easily prevent hundreds of cases of illness, either now or over time. Our project was created to empower such people to help alleviate the suffering of others and to know they have made a difference.

It doesn’t have to be the wealthiest members of the community to have an impact: a kindly grandmother who decides to donate a few hundred dollars to Malaria Consortium will prevent several children from falling ill, and so would a newlywed couple making a small gesture as part of their celebration.

Setting up a small, friendly Zoom meeting with a handful of congregation members could really end up helping a lot of people. It doesn’t even have to be an official synagogue event—it really could just be a small meeting with three people who you think might find our effort appealing.

I can’t stress this enough: I am always happy to talk to people who might be interested in what we do. In the past year, our new initiative has mobilized over 30 leading congregations to provide protection from malaria (either nets or a full course of antimalarial medicine) to ~20,000 human beings, to vaccinate ~200 infants, and to save about 25 lives. The project is quickly becoming quite a force for good in the world, and I would love to share the story of how I created this effort with your community (or even with individual members from your community).

A Small Adjustment to Your Mitzvah Program Could Go a Very Long Way

After Speaking to over 150 rabbis in the past year and a half, I’ve noticed a blind spot that most congregations have regarding their mitzvah projects: while most bnei mitzvah children in most congregations raise money for different charities, almost no congregation keeps track of what has been done collectively throughout the year. What this means is that at the end of the year there is no collective achievement to speak of (or take pride in).

Just making a small adjustment and encouraging children to focus their giving—or even just a small part of their giving—on a single effective charity with very measurable results could enable a congregation to proudly say that in the past year their bar/bat mitzvah class has protected hundreds of people from illness and perhaps even saved a life together.

Once again, the scale doesn’t have to be grand for this to help a lot of people: if a class of 10 bnei mitzvah students raise an average of $100 each for the Against Malaria Foundation, that would already be enough to protect around 360 people for 2 years, preventing several dozens of people from falling ill. If these children and their parents get a bit more ambitious, they could even save a life together (which could be a beautiful bond between them and their congregation).

In fact, it doesn’t even take the whole group buying into the idea: If in the same class of 10 bnei mitzvah families, just one family decides to celebrate its moment of joy by committing to save a life, over time, together with family and friends (you can read more about the idea of a life-saving bar mitzvah right here), that would be already be a beautiful, tangible thing that your congregation has done for some of the world’s most disenfranchised people.

I’d like to once again point out just how little effort this would require—just writing a short email to a handful of Bnei mitzvah parents to suggest a short, informal Zoom meeting about saving lives could end up preventing hundreds of people from falling ill!

Setting Modest, Doable Goals for Discretionary Fund/Committee Support

Perfect, as the proverb says, is the enemy of the good.

If deciding to participate in our initiative is presented as a ‘yes or no’ decision about whether to commit to raising at least $3,000 this year for the charities we support, then a congregation saying ‘no’ means it and its members will probably not do anything to support these charities (i.e. zero children protected and zero cases of illness prevented).

But if you feel that $3,000 is too demanding for your discretionary fund or social justice committee, how about setting aside $1,000 for extremely well-vetted life-saving charities? If that’s too much this year, how about $500? (While I won’t go on, I will point out that even $250 would protect almost 100 people from malaria for two years, preventing several actual human beings from falling ill…)

We live in a world in which, if you do the simple math, it costs no more than $20 to prevent a case of malaria (and this is a conservative estimate). That’s kind of unbelievable. The question we want encourage congregations to ask themselves is how much are they willing to help the handful of charities that can have this kind of impact on the lives of others.

If, for this reason or another, you don’t feel your congregation is in a position to prevent hundreds of cases of malaria this year, can it prevent a few dozen? If even that is a problem, can it make a small symbolic contribution to these charities to get things going and show support for our effort?

If committing to save a life sounds like too high a bar, how about trying to save a life in the next three years?

Whether it’s the rabbi’s discretionary fund, a Social Justice commitee, individual members, public donations, anonymous donations—with these incredible charities, every dollar we manage to raise really does count.

If you appreciate what we are trying to build here, would like to show your support, and don’t know where to start, just going to GiveWell’s donation page and making a smaller contribution, in honour of your congregation, to one of their Top Charities or their Top Charities Fund (and letting us know about it) is a great first step.

There are different ways and different levels in which congregations can collaborate with our effort. What I'd like to convey here is that participation in the project is not an 'all or nothing' affair and that a small first step is always better than no step at all.


Adam Azari is the head of the Jewish Effective Giving Initiative.