Editor's Note: Debra and David Magerman were honored last month for their support of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School. The following is an excerpt of David Magerman's address to the gathering.
People often ask me why we have gotten so involved in supporting Jewish day schools. After all, neither of us went to day school ourselves. And we haven't just been supporting Perelman; we've given to nearly every Jewish day school in the Delaware Valley. We made our first significant such donation to Torah Academy, an Orthodox day school to which we had absolutely no plans to send our children. Many people were surprised it wasn't to Perelman. "Why aren't you helping your own children's school first?" they asked.
My answer is simple: All of Philadelphia is our community, and we have a responsibility to all of it, not just the parts we use directly. We want to use our resources to make a positive impact on our community. And we want to do it through promoting Jewish education.
When I started having financial success, my upbringing taught me to give back. But it didn't teach me how. I gave money to secular causes and thought I was fulfilling my obligations as a Jew.
It was only when my eyes were opened to the breadth of Jewish law that I began to understand that there are rules, guidelines. I learned about the importance of giving to my community first, about giving to the poor, about the mitzvah of Torah learning and how important it is to make it available to others. Even without binding myself to all of the legal obligations of the Torah, I began to realize that a clear set of Jewish ideas and values comes out of the law. Financing a building at a university or sending doctors to Africa are worthwhile endeavors, but they shouldn't be a priority when members of our community are starving– physically, intellectually or spiritually.
My Jewish education came later in life, not at a day school, but from Partners in Torah's Tele-Partners program, a phone-based learning program that pairs up unobservant Jews with observant mentors. Over the course of three years of study, I learned that I had an obligation to use the good fortune that God had given me to help my fellow Jews.
I learned that 10 percent of what I earn is not mine to use, but must be given back to the poor. And this should go to the poor of my community, not to worthy people in Africa or even Israel. I learned that my tzedakah should not be frivolous or self-serving, but should be guided by principles of justice. I have more than I need, and others who have less than they need should benefit from my giving. I also learned that the best kind of giving is the kind that spawns self-sufficiency. These are things I learned from studying Torah.
Through my makeshift Jewish education, I came to understand that the Torah informs our behavior in all aspects of human interaction. Torah literally defines what it means to be a community. I may never be completely Torah-observant. I may not act on all of the laws of Judaism that I learn. But I am a much better citizen for knowing Torah law.
I came upon this understanding in spite of my lack of a day-school education. But I still believe the most effective way to create a Jewish community, as God intended it, is to teach children Judaism from the start. We all benefit if our community's children are raised with a Jewish education, whether or not we have kids in the system. With a strong Jewish education system, our community's children will grow up to become respectful, mature, God-fearing adults.
This is the model Debra and I are promoting. If we can get more Jewish families to consider day school — no matter how secular they think they are — we can reintroduce a deeper knowledge of Torah into the mainstream Jewish community. If more Jewish Philadelphians had a working knowledge of Torah and how its laws inform their behavior — regardless of their level of ritual observance — I guarantee you that Philadelphia would be a better place to live. That's what we want for our children and grandchildren, as well as for yours.
David Magerman is the founder of the Kohelet Foundation, which provides grants for students to attend Jewish day schools.