The Power of Charity…with Mem Bernstein


How do you decide when or how to give? Why is money so awkward to speak about? Is sharing really caring? Listen in as Noam and Mem speak about financial aid, the homeless crisis, and their favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.

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Episode Transcript


Are you rich?

Kind of an awkward question, right? We’re a little awkward about money.

But let’s reframe. Take away your definition, stop thinking rich = lots of money. What would you describe as the rich life? What makes someone wealthy?

There are so many ways to answer that that have nothing to do with money.

Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, a Jewish Talmudic text full of quips and insights, offers one description. Eizehu ashir, hasameiach bichelko. Who is rich? He who is content with what he or she has.

Marcus Aurelias, the former Roman emperor and great stoic master, who I spoke about with Chloe Valdary, back in Episode 1, has a different definition. Marcus Aurelius defined his wealth in a really unique way – about service, about others. To Marcus, the true measure of his wealth is that whenever he saw someone in need of help, he could provide it. And, on the flip side, wealth provided him with a luxury: he would never need to ask for such a favor.

Of course, there are more traditional definitions of the “rich life,” like being able to travel, to reduce potential hassle by paying a little extra, to having those VIP services everyone wants. I call them “creature comforts,” and I have to admit, that kind of wealth does seem pretty, pretty nice. I’m not some ascetic who disparages the finer things in life. They’re great. 

But I would like to think for many of us, when we think about wealth, we think about, or we would like to think about, giving. Charity. Having resources, means we have the ability to be generous.

Now I know what you might be thinking, because I think this often. Yeah, of course giving is good. I give whenever my friend runs a 5k. I give to my nieces and nephews when they run a bake sale. But I can’t just give that much. I’m not a millionaire! I’m still young, I’m not an investment banker, I’m just. Not. There.

But you know what. There’s a fascinating psycho-social law outlined in the Talmud, that teaches us that the pauper, the poor person, is obligated in tzedakah as well.

Why is that? Why is tzedakah, charity (and spoiler, they’re not the same), such a value for us in Judaism?

So many young people in their 20’s and 30’s I’ve spoken to are so cautious with their money and want to wait for the “right moment,” so to speak, to give tzedakah when they can. After their first car, after their first first house, after they put their kids through day school. And yes, and yes, life can be expensive, but from everything I’ve learned about in Judaism is this idea from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which was co-opted by NIKE. JUST. DO IT. Don’t overthink giving. We all make so many calculations. Will these two dollars really help the person who is at the red light asking for help? Will my $100 really help this institution become even greater? There is a value in being discerning in so many areas in life, and for sure which charities to give to, but when it comes to tzedakah, the way I see it, JUST DO IT. 

To dive into this topic, I knew exactly who I needed to speak to. You might have heard of Mem Bernstein, renowned philanthropist in the Jewish community. But even if you don’t know who she is, I have no doubt that you’ve been touched by her generosity, by the way she thinks about investing in the Jewish future. Mem is synonymous with tzedakah, but she doesn’t think about it in a traditional way, and she certainly does not like the word charity.

Let’s hear what she has to say. Friends, I bring you Mem Bernstein.


Noam: Mem, it is so exciting to have you on our show, The Power Of. Welcome. Thanks for being here.

Mem: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Noam, for asking me.

Noam: We’re really excited for this conversation. I think the topic of charity is one that is critical for all of us to be thinking about, but I think we need language for thinking about it. I think that we need conversations with people like you to help guide us really on how to think about the world of philanthropy, the world of Tzedakah, the meaning of charity. Let’s just start on a personal level. Why do you care about charity? Why is this important to you?

Mem: It’s funny you should ask because I don’t really care about charity. It’s a word I don’t like, and the truth is I never use it and it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t use it until you presented me with the question. What I care about is caring, taking care of and helping; but certainly charity, not so sure. Now, when we use the word Tzedakah, it has a different feel to it, I would say; but often we use the word investing in the work that we do because that is what we’re doing. We’re investing in the projects. Investing in the people, investing in the Jewish people. Charity, charity means helping somebody for a second, for a minute, without caring, without thinking about them. It’s not something that we do.

Noam: Yeah. I love that point, and it resonates because the word Tzedakah certainly doesn’t mean charity. It comes from the root of justice. It’s part and parcel of what we ought to be doing, not something that is separate from us. Not something that’s above and beyond. Your point is, “Well, it’s something that I ought to be doing,” and that it’s something that you’re passionate about. Well, then let’s talk about that. Why did you become passionate to invest in the Jewish people, to invest in the Jewish future? Why is this something that’s important to you?

Mem: Well, I think that’s a question that comes after a long line of answers. I’m going to back it up a bit and say, I think for most people who find themselves in my position, who are fortunate enough to find themselves in my position, were raised with giving because you were raised with caring for the people you lived around and lived with; who taught you how to share and taught you how to help people in a way that was meaningful. And I was raised that way. I grew up in a family of many aunts and uncles and cousins who lived right within my building, and so the thing where they… Good Humor truck went down the street and you said, “Dad, can I have a quarter?” Five hands went into their pockets.

You just learned… I find myself even today, with my own grandchildren, trying to do the same thing. Helping them to understand that if one of the kids needs help, another one is there to help so they’re not alone. I think that’s where this whole business of caring comes from. In terms of what we do, the foundations do. Of course, largely that comes from my late husband Zalman Bernstein, because what we inherited was basically his wealth to export, let’s say, to organizations in need of investments; and that’s what we do. We help to secure their futures. The mission statements of the foundations are all set out. We focus on them pretty strongly, and we try to maintain our focus and drill down. And, it’s not a matter of did I become caring? It’s a matter of the extension of yourself. It’s who you are. It’s what you do.

Noam: I love your description of caring as your understanding of Tzedakah, because… I guess what you’re essentially saying is… I read your great speech, Passing the Baton. And you speak about the fact that you grew up with a father who started out as a taxi driver, and you make a great joke that… Then you bought a toy store, they bought a toy store, no, not Toys “R” Us. And then you become, I think, synonymous with venture philanthropy in the Jewish world. On the one hand, I guess some could say, “Well, I guess that’s the American Dream.” Couldn’t have seen that coming right. On the other hand, if you have this disposition for caring then whatever means you have, you were going to be the type of person that was going to demonstrate that caring in one way or the other.

Mem: Yes, I suppose that’s true. However, let’s be realistic here. I was surrounded by a group of people who were already in the business of caring and they basically adopted me, and they mentored me, and they brought me along. So I inherited from my late husband, but I also not only inherited the ability financially to do that, but I inherited an enormous group of people who were there to be counted on and who created for me the avenues in which we work. So I was never alone in this.

What I mean to say is within the foundations, I was surrounded by people who were caring and who could help me to get to a point that I had to be at in order to carry out the missions of the foundations. What I’m basically saying is it’s one thing to want to give. It’s another thing to learn how to give, and I need to learn how. I think that most people, perhaps as individuals, they take their hand, they put it in their pocket, they write a check. But in our case, I was surrounded by people and we created opportunities for the support of Jewish community in the way that we wanted to support that community. In that way, we did our giving.

Noam: Pretend you’re a mentor of mine and you say to me, “Hey, Noam, here’s how I think about philanthropy. Here’s how I think about caring and giving.” What are some of those lessons that you would want to teach me?

Mem: I want to teach you to be patient and understanding. To be focused and drill down. To, I suppose, prepare for the best but expect the worst. YOU have to evaluate what you’re doing all the time. You have to look at what you’re doing. You have to ask yourself, “Is what you’re doing creative and is it sustainable, and does it have impact?” Is there reason behind what you’re doing? I think those are questions that you have to ask.

Noam: And when you think about… You’re talking about investments and you… AVI CHAI is an investment in the Jewish future by investing in Jewish education. When your late husband, Zalman Bernstein, started thinking about adult education, one of the things that he quickly learned, and obviously adult education is super duper important; but there’s a real value in investing in younger and younger and younger, which is-

Mem: Absolutely. All indications today would show you that if you are focusing on Jewish education, Jewish day school education, Jewish overnight summer camping, you’re making an investment that takes off at the end of the day.

Noam: Yeah, so that’s one type of… We’ll call it Tzedakah. We won’t use the word charity. I want to ask you what your thoughts are on other forms of Tzedakah, regardless of whether or not this is an area of passion of yours. I think that when people think of Tzedakah in the Jewish world, they think of somebody… Let’s say that father or that mother who can’t put food on their Shabbat table. I used to do Tomchei Shabbat in Los Angeles, it’s called, My wife and I would drive around our kids and they would run to the door, leave it at the door. They’re five years old, three years old, but I wanted… I never thought about it the way that you’re talking about it, but it’s so simple, and true, and eloquent… I’m teaching them to care. Right?

Mem: Absolutely right. When they get older, you would hope that they would carry on that tradition that you taught them when they were young. That’s what it’s all about in my opinion.

Noam: Right, so, one of the challenges of Tzedakah or people who have the ability who have accrued power and wealth over time, there was a speech that Rabbi Jeremy Wieder recently gave. He’s one of the leading Rabbis at Yeshiva University. He gave this speech which made its rounds in the digital space. One of the things that he cited is… I’m going to read it to you. He says the studies of the brain using imaging explained something that was described in the Harvard Business Review several years ago, as what he calls the power paradox.

When people acquire power or wealth, their brains change, and many of the social qualities that allow them to rise in the first place get lost or weakened. One of those qualities is empathy. Before one rises, one sees one self as connected to others. But then after rising, that connection is lost.

Do you think that that description is fair? How do you look at that comment from Rabbi Wieder? Does it resonate? Does it bother you? Do you disagree with it?

Mem: I hate to say I agree with it, but I do.

Noam: Really? You do.

Mem: Because it’s negative, naturally negative, but yes, I agree with it. Let’s see. “If it’s not my way I’m taking my ball and going home.” That’s what happens and it’s not pleasant. Fortunately, I was tutored, mentored and trained not to do that because otherwise I might have, I might easily have. It’s very easy to become someone greater than you are by virtue of what people think and say about you.

Noam: Meaning you could start believing your own press is what you’re saying?

Mem: Yeah.

Noam: That’s a difficult thing because I think once we’ve… We’re all there to different degrees. It’s not like, “You hit the 1 billion mark, you’re there.” I think that one of the reasons maybe that… This is an idea that I’ve heard in the past and would love your thoughts on it as well. One of the reasons that, when we’re walking by somebody who’s homeless, we avert our eyes is because we don’t want to feel what they’re feeling. Once we catch our eyes, then there’s this human connection that we have to deal with the problem or deal with the challenge.

Mem: Well, I think it’s very difficult. I know, for myself, when I pass someone on the street, I’m uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable for myself. I’m uncomfortable for them. That’s the truth. that’s almost too painful.

Noam: It’s very painful. you’re removed from it because you’re investing in Jewish education, and that is obviously a massive form of Tzedakah. What’s your take on the best form of giving Tzedakah? Do you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Mem: Only when I have to.

Noam: Okay. Fair enough. Larry David has this… I think it’s a funny concept. He’s says that they’re donating to, I think, it’s a hospital or an art museum. I think it’s Ted Danson who gives anonymously. He’s giving anonymously and Larry David gave a certain amount, but he has his name on it, Larry David. Larry David’s wife at the time says to him, “Could you believe it? Ted Danson is giving anonymously, and it’s so amazing of him that he’s giving anonymously.” Larry David is beside himself because he’s like, “Are you kidding me? You can’t be known as the person that’s giving anonymously. You can’t get… You can’t have it both ways. There’s a great debate out there. Do you think it’s more important to give charity anonymously? This concept is matan ba’seter, giving it in a hidden way, or do you think as a philanthropist it’s important to have your name out there. Which one is more important and why?

Mem: Definitely it’s more important to give anonymously because then it doesn’t have the implication of broadening or enlarging your head. I think, though, that when you’re in the position that people like myself are in, it’s very hard not to put your name on things and many people do. AVI CHAI has tried very hard not to do that. There would be no name to put on because it’s a foundation, it’s AVI CHAI. Look, everyone involved in philanthropy, in my opinion, does it for two reasons. One, they do it for the good of what they’re doing and the other, they do it for the good of what they get to feel about what they’re doing. It’s a great feeling and to be recognized as the person who does that, it’s even better yet, but it’s not the job that you’re supposed to be thinking mostly about.

Noam: That’s true. I want to read that a little positively. I’m going to come back from my cynicism and I’m going to read it positively. I think it’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who says that one of the reasons that there’s a concept that an ani, a poor person, that even takes funds from the others-

Mem: Has to give himself.

Noam: Still has to give, because it gives that person dignity.

Mem: Exactly.

Noam: Giving is…This is my take. There’s nothing wrong with feeling positive about the fact that I gave something. There are many examples of pleasure that we should probably stay away from, but this pleasure of giving someone Tzedakah or investing in the Jewish future and feeling good about that. I think we could honor that pleasure and say, “That’s a good pleasure.”

Mem: It’s true. It is a good pleasure. No question. It’s different on an individual level and different on a foundation level. It’s interesting because I think at an individual level, it’s even more important to give anonymously, but people don’t.

Noam: Why is it more important?

Mem: Because it doesn’t aggrandize the person.

Noam: Absolutely. That becomes challenging. Do you think that this is a conversation that you, Mem, you’re having with me and it’s a venture philanthropist with somebody who helps lead an organization and 17 year olds, 23 year olds, 28 year olds. You have nothing to think about right now. You only think about Tzedakah when you’re over 45 years old and you’ve built a successful career, now, you could start thinking about Tzedakah.

Or, how do we make this relevant to teenagers and young adults who Tzedakah is not something… That my understanding of Tzedakah is not something that is relegated to the extremely wealthy at all and/or is it relegated to those who are over 45 years old?

Mem: Well, the truth is you said it yourself. When you take your kids out to put food on the doorstep of others in need, you’re teaching them to give Tzedakah, and that’s where it begins. To take someone who is… It’s impossible. I think within the Jewish world… Let’s be frank. Within the Jewish world, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody 40 years old, who hasn’t been taught to care earlier on in his life. By the time you’re 40 years old, the question becomes, do you have enough to support your family and discretionary funds? And it doesn’t have to be a large amount. It should be commensurate with what you’re earning. It can’t be any more than that. If you’re a successful person, you do the best you can to give back.

Noam: Right, and it’s got to be part of our DNA. I agree. To speak about the Torah and to speak about Western thought. I want to combine both for a minute here. The Torah says, or Pirkei Avot, it says, eizeh hu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko. Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his or her lot.  I want to read another definition of wealth that I came across, not because I’m an avid reader, but because I’m an avid podcast listener. It’s the podcast about stoicism. This is someone speaking about Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius defines his wealth in a way that has nothing to do with money. To him, true measure of wealth is that whenever he saw someone in need of help, he could provide it. That is his definition of wealth. And then, he said he had a unique luxury to never need to ask for such a favor.

Mem: On the one hand, he’s right. If you can give and you do give, that’s great, but the truth is everybody is in need. They’re just in need of different things. You might not need money, you might simply need a hug, but everyone has needs all day long. It’s interesting. There was a podcast about memory and experiences and how one’s memory really shapes his life, the same is true here. Giving is a great pleasure. The question of how much you can give over what period of time, that’s measurable for everybody. Nobody gives and feels badly. You don’t feel badly when you give, you just can’t.

Noam: Essentially, what you’re saying is Tzedakah, or giving, isn’t just about money. It’s about inculcating the middah, the trait of generosity. I love that. It’s the dignity of generosity. It’s something that you’re right. You can be 17, you can be five years old, you can be 10 years old, and it’s something that I do believe, I do think that there’s something deeply ingrained in Jewish thought and Jewish ideas, and the Torah, that teaches all Jewish communities, regardless of background, that giving and giving cheerfully, by the way, is something that is ingrained in all of us; regardless of whether or not I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, my wife from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. You were in San Jose, you’re in San Francisco. This is how we grew up. This is how we tend to think about giving, thinking about caring. I think it’s… I’m proud to be part of this. Maybe a personal question. When do you say no? When is Mem Bernstein like, “No. No, thank you. Don’t want to invest.”

Mem: When to say no. Look, when you’re being asked in all different ways. Personally, I’m being asked by friends who are involved in things that I would never dream of being involved in, but they’re your friends; and so you set aside a sum of money and you give to your friends because otherwise you wouldn’t have many friends.

Noam: One second. Well, on top of that, it’s because you love your friends. Your giving is an expression of your love. It’s not-

Mem: Of course. You care because they care for something and that’s enough for you. When you have a vision and a mission, and you stick to it; when you say no, you feel comfortable saying no, because you know that you have a job. You’ve outlined what your job is going to be. You’ve set your sights on it and you stick with it, and you don’t let wgar some people call mosquitoes get in the way. You just don’t.

Noam: Mosquitoes.

Mem: It’s okay to say no then. It’s also okay to say no to your friends when they’re supporting things that you really find offensive. There are many times that that happens, and then you have to say no because there is a greater good in the world. You just don’t and say yes to everything.

Noam: One of the remarkable things I just want to conclude with, it’s just an insight. You keep on using the word we instead of I, and I paid attention to that throughout this entire conversation. I know that it is a we, I know that. I know that you’ll say, and very humbly, that it’s a we. I think that that’s actually part of the caring, because other people could potentially view it as an I moment; and you do genuinely view it as a we, which is why you naturally kept on saying we. I think it’s a remarkable thing.

Mem: Yeah, I do. I’ve been very fortunate and I don’t even think of myself as an I, I don’t; and luckily because there were so many great contributions from the we that I benefited from, that I don’t really think of myself as an I. You’re right, I don’t.

Noam: Well, Mem Bernstein, it was such an honor to have this conversation with you. I was telling one of my friends, who is another philanthropist, that I was speaking to you and her text message to me during this conversation was, “Tell her she’s a legend,” and indeed, ma’am, you are a legend. Thank you so much.

Mem: Thank you very much. Bye bye.


When I was in high school, about a million years ago, one of the language options was Latin. I’ll be honest. It was the last period of the day and we always had excuses for why we couldn’t make it. And looking back, I regret it because when you know Latin, you could figure out the etymology and the root for so many words in the English language. But I didn’t really take Latin, so I had to Google to find out what the etymology of the word charity was. You know what’s interesting? It comes from agape love, which Chloé and I also talked about back in episode one. It comes from the word dear, another term for affection and endearment. Pretty interesting, but let’s go back to the contrast Mem made. A really important one.

That charity is not Tzedakah because the roots of Tzedakah are not dear or love. Tzedakah comes from Tzedek, which is better defined as justice. In Judaism, we believe that Tzedakah is necessary. It’s just. It’s the only way to create a just world and just people. It’s not about being generous, it’s about being human. We know this from the laws of Tzedakah. Yes, laws. Can you imagine the American or the Australian or the South African legal system obligating charity? It would be laughable.

But Judaism has a whole set of laws for how much we give. See the concept of maaser, or tithing, for example. Not only that, we have a whole set of laws for how we give. We’re actually obligated to give cheerfully and joyfully. How crazy is that? I think when we take a step back and think about it, it’s not crazy; because when I give, I receive. That’s not some cutesy idea, it’s true.

When I give to my sister-in-law’s marathons, someone on the street I’ve never met, or to an institution I believe in, I feel good. Actually, I feel really good. I’m not this crazy general person. You are the same way, I guarantee it. Think about a time when you were happiest. Is it when you took something from someone or is it when you gave something to someone? I want to end by coming back to the question of wealth. Mem put something so well. She said that a big part about giving is inculcating, within us, the spirit of generosity. To me, that is wealth.

Wealth is about not having to take a second thought to put others first. That is what I will walk away with, reminding myself through daily words and actions, to infuse my life with this value of generosity within me.

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