By: Shoshi Wyszynski | Business  | 

Tikkun Olam and the IRS

“Torah U’Maada”  is probably one of the most common phrases a student will hear in Yeshiva University. Modern Orthodoxy’s famous tagline is used for all sorts of things: an excuse to attend a Shiur when time-commitments would have demanded otherwise; a justification for interviewing at  Goldman Sachs during a scheduled Seder. “Torah U’Maddah” is expressed as both a support for making Aliyah as well as a defense for those choosing not to do so. Simply, the meaning of the phrase clearly varies with its speaker’s intentions.  However, I think Rabbi Lamm’s definition of Torah U’Maada is the most pertinent; “ Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offers us a more overarching and truer vision than either one alone.”

If one were to ask a Syms student to define the word “business”, he/she would likely respond with an answer similar to “The changing and trading of commerce to make the highest profit.” Indeed, this definition would seem to fit well with that of The Webster’s dictionary: “A usually commercial or mercantile activity engaged in as a means of a livelihood.” The common theme in both of these definitions is the emphasis on monetary profit. In this case, Torah U’Maddah could be loosely translated as “Torah and Business”.

However, in my opinion, the nonprofit sector of the business world is the closest that a person can can get to true Torah Biyedi Maada.

People are often confused not by what a nonprofit is, but how one operates. When asked what a nonprofit was, my younger sister answered with a couple examples such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation and our local homeless shelter/soup kitchen. However, when asked how a nonprofit operated financially, she admitted to being a little confused. A nonprofit organization’s mission statement is very similar to for-profit institutions in that they both strive to bring in the most revenue or produce the  most product. However, the definitions of revenue and product differ from the norm. In regards to a nonprofit organization, the revenue brought in is used solely to cover overhead costs and expenses. It is an incorporated business in which the shareholders or trustees do not benefit financially. As long as the nonprofit’s activities are associated with the nonprofit’s missions statement, any profit made is not taxable.

Nonprofits are tax exempt under Internal revenue Code section 501(c)(3) as public charities because they are formed to provide public benefit. You may have heard a nonprofit interested in gaining your financial support touting their 501(c)(3) status--this essentially legitimizes the organization as it means they have been recognized by the IRS as being tax exempt by the virtue of its programming and service.

Under the broad term “nonprofit” exists two categories--private and public. Private foundations are usually established from a single source or specific sources such as family or corporate money, instead of funding from the general public. On the other hand, public foundations have many different missions; in fact, The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities identifies 645 categories of public nonprofits in their classification codes. Public nonprofits receive their funding from the general public and focus on obtaining their resources from a variety of different donors instead of one trust or fund.

Public charitable organizations are classified in many groupings such as human services, education focused charities, health and mental services, community and civil rights, etc. Although the funding for nonprofits differ categorically, the universal mission statement of providing services for those in need applies to both public and private nonprofits.  

Ultimately, the mission of any nonprofit is to help those less fortunate. While the earnings of a for-profit institution will often be used by its board members to purchase various luxuries,  the monies of A nonprofit organization go directly to those who need the resources and basic necessities that so many people take for granted.  There are a plethora of organizations whose missions are to simply make the world a better place: Save the Children is a global organization that sponsors children all over the world who don’t have  access to food, water, or shelter.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center is devoted to fighting any form of Anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate and facilitates interfaith dialogue and connection. Other examples include the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and more.

In his talk on the assimilation of Tikkun Olam, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delves into the etymology of the Hebrew root word taken. As it appears in Vayikra, it is used in the sense of straightening, fixing and refashioning. The Hebrew word “olam” means not only world, but a universe, spiritual sphere, society, and eternity. In rabbinic literature and tradition the words Tikkun Olam often appear together in order to stress the global responsibility of each individual to repair this world which was fractured by the original sin of Adam and Eve.

In my experience, having interned in various nonprofits, I have found that one way to help repair this world is through helping the needy and less fortunate. Specifically, I believe that a person can maximize his/her impact by working at a nonprofit organization that services a large demographic.. Being involved in the business world does not mean chesed, or kindness, should be forgotten. In his book To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks delves into our mission on this world. He writes “We are God’s ambassadors on earth.” The way we live affects how others see Him. God needs us. The idea sounds paradoxical but it is true. Wittingly or unwittingly the way we live tells a story. If we live well, we become a blessing to others, we become witnesses to the transformative power of the divine presence.”